Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

06/07/2012 - 21/07/2012

Production Details

Next Big Thing Festival supports budding actors, designers and crew to strut their stuff on and off stage.

Auckland Theatre Company proudly presents the New Zealand premiere of TUSK TUSK, a new play from award-winning playwright Polly Stenham (That Face), which opens on Friday 6 July, at The Basement, as part of the Next Big Thing Festival, a two-week season of the best of local and international work for young audiences.

Skins meets Home Alone in this funny and heartbreaking drama by London’s hottest young playwright.

Three siblings, Maggie, fourteen, Eliot, fifteen, and Finn, seven, are home alone in an unfurnished flat: living nocturnally, avoiding neighbours, eating cold Chinese takeaway, awaiting a call on a cell-phone that never rings. What are they waiting for and where the hell is Mum?

“Tusk Tusk is often remarkably funny, as well as exceptionally touching.”- Daily Telegraph  

Dancing a fine line between hilarity and heartache, TUSK TUSK is an absorbing drama about a dysfunctional family.

Hera Dunleavy directs an impressive young cast, including two seven-year-old primary school students, Flynn Allan and Arlo McLean, who play the youngest sibling Finn: part-Lost Boy, part-Max from Where the Wild Things Are

“Tusk Tusk is a play about the incredible bond between siblings, which is intensified in an extreme situation, such as having a parent go missing” – Time Out, Australia

The NEXT BIG THING, is a year-long youth company, open to anyone 15 -25, based at Auckland Theatre Company that provides a bridge from high school to drama school and between full-time training and the professional industry.

“It is a hothouse for new talent: a place to develop new work and new ways of working.” Says Lynne Cardy, Auckland Theatre Company’s Associate Director.

TUSK TUSK By Polly Stenham
06 -21 July, 6.30pm
The Basement
Tickets can be purchased from Auckland Theatre Company on 309 3395. 

CAST:  Flynn Allan, Lucelia Everett-Brown, Arlo Gibson, Arlo McLean, Nilianne Ualiu with guest appearances by Michelle Leuthart and Matthew Norton. 

DESIGN: Jessika Verryt, Caitlin Brogan, and Michael Forkert. 

Repetitive script undermines performing potential

Review by (critic uncredited) 11th Jul 2012

Tusk Tusk by the UK’s Polly Stenham is a highly-strung drama with a premise taken from a child’s make-believe game: three siblings – aged 16, 14 and 7 – have to fend for themselves when their mother disappears. All this information is drip-fed to create artificial suspense, lengthening the show to two hours. But the concept is interesting: when trying to avoid your bogey man, you can create a worse situation through your panic (and not know it). 

Directed by Hera Dunleavy, the young cast have a lot of potential (particularly leads Arlo Gibson and Lucelia Everett-Brown, and young Flynn Allan, on “Finn” duty the night I saw this) but the repetitive script (“I’m serious!”, “I mean it!” “you can’t stop me!” etc) seems to lack authority and grounding. [More


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Dysfunction, mystery, lightness and levity

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 10th Jul 2012

Auckland Theatre Company’s ‘Next Big Thing Festival’ is a stimulating theatre prototype developed by Associate Director Lynne Cardy and the company’s Youth Arts team headed by Whetu Silver. 

To quote from the excellent company website, “Next Big Thing is a year-long youth company based at ATC that provides a bridge from high school to drama school and between full-time training and the professional industry. It is a hothouse for new talent: a place to develop new work and new ways of working.”

Interested? Then read on: “Anyone aged 15 – 25 can apply to take part.” According to the website “over 120 people auditioned in March for a role in the 2012 festival” and everyone “had a blast!”

To call a festival ‘Next Big Thing’ is, in itself, a brave thing to do because it sets the whole thing up with the highest of expectations. But if anyone can do it Colin McColl and his team can because ATC has vision and capacity, and their outreach programme has already had a number of significant successes. 

The 2012 festival features three new works: Tusk Tusk by Polly Stenham (6 to 21 July at 6.30pm), Checkout Chicks – The Musical by Rachel Callinan and Julia Truscott (6 to 21 July at 9pm) and Sleepover, a devised show conceived and directed by Chris Neels (Friday 13 and Saturday 14 July at 11pm). ‘Sleepover’ is restricted to audiences of 18 years and over.

Tusk Tusk is a new play by relative newcomer and enfant terrible Polly Stenham and it’s an extraordinary piece of work.  It’s not her first: that was That Face, written when she was nineteen and premiered at the Royal Court in 2007 when she was twenty one. That Face was directed by the prodigiously talented Jeremy Herrin who also directed the first production of Tusk Tusk, again at the Royal Court, in 2009. To say this production has an impressive whakapapa is an understatement. 

The premiere production programme tells us, “once upon a time in what feels like another country, three children play hide and seek. Fifteen year old Elliott wears a crown, thirteen year old Maggie wraps herself in silk and little Finn draws on the walls. Together they watch a mobile phone intensely, willing it to come to life. Whose call are they waiting for and why are they home alone?” Cardy adds the tag “where the wild things are now”.  It’s a good summary.

It’s a brave company that will take on a work on this emotional scale, especially with a young and inexperienced company, because the themes of abandonment, loyalty, mental illness, fear and alienation run deep in all of us but are not easily accessed.

Often as hilarious as it is heart breaking, Tusk Tusk is a tale of family ties and loyalty tested to the maximum by three very young people facing an uncertain future with stoicism, invention and humour.  

Stenham creates narrative like few others.  Already compared with Caryl Churchill, Joe Penhall and Jez Butterworth, she has, in Tusk Tusk, created an exceptionally potent drama. But in saying that, she has also created something of a monster in that the richness of the content mitigates somewhat against the casting.  

Cardy describes the play as containing “the argy-bargy and furious love of family life.” She’s certainly right about that!  It also addresses some of the most difficult and complex issues that any young cast can be faced with and this fine bunch tackle them with gusto and professionalism. 

In her liner notes director Hera Dunleavy talks about siblings, responsibility and survival and simply surviving the play is challenge enough because it quite simply never lets up. There are moments of welcome levity but the overall feel is one of inexorability and repletion and so it resolves. The play ends with the youngsters about to (happily) revisit their recent experience only in a different locale. Part of me wanted to scream: “Don’t do it!”  

The principal challenge for these young actors is having enough craft at such a young age to fulfil the depth and emotional complexities presented by the text. They do this pretty well and are in expert hands. (*See further notes below)

In many ways Tusk Tusk is a conventional piece of work not dissimilar to the kitchen sink plays of the 1950s. It is staged in a room, it’s pretty naturalistic and the drama unfolds in narrative form.

The set (Jessica Verryt) includes a rather dowdy couch, brown unopened cardboard boxes litter the space and duct tape abounds. At the back there’s a duck egg blue wall, a door to the outside, French doors to a garden and a low bolted door to a basement. Gauze curtains cover the French doors and the archway entrance to a bedroom completes a picture of drab, modern vulnerability. 

The plot involves three children seemingly living alone.

There’s fifteen year old Elliot who turns sixteen during the narrative. He’s happy, a tad on the romantic side and fiercely loyal to the absent mother and to his siblings. He describes himself as ‘a metrosexual warrior’ proving that self-knowledge isn’t his strong suit. His greatest fear is that they’ll be found out by the authorities and separated.

Arlo Gibson brings a fine angularity to the role and his cleverly nuanced performance is soundly based in Stenham’s text. Aside from a tendency to over-gesture, Gibson’s performance is all heart. His relationship with Maggie is affectionate and warm and with further performances I don’t doubt that this will become even stronger.

Elliot has a brief fling with Cassie, a girl he meets on one of his hunter gather excursions to find food, but while their relationship is deeply touching, it’s doomed to failure. There are too many secrets, too many lies and half-truths in this apartment and eventually she has no choice but to walk away. Nilianne Ualiu is effective as Cassie and brings the first real sense of an outside world into this dysfunctional and unhappy flat, thereby giving us a reference point for the degree of their dysfunction.

Maggie is thirteen and a splendid protagonist to her older sibling. She’s the rational one, the voice of common sense. Lucelia Everett-Brown is passionate, strident – a little too strident at times – and drives the play with a boundless energy. Her understanding of the emotional complexities of Maggie – and the situation she finds herself in – is admirable but, unsurprisingly, there are some depths that remain unplumbed. She’s already good and I suspect during the season will get even better.

Finn is seven and the youngest sibling. There’s a lot for Finn to do and a wide range of emotions to live through and Flynn Allen (on the night I attended but also played by Arlo Maclean) fulfilled the requirements of the role very well indeed. His performance is charming and craftsmanlike and it is through his eyes that we see most profoundly what the siblings are going through.  

The play revolves around the fact that these kids have just moved into this apartment and their mother has disappeared. They’re alone and fearful that, if discovered, they will be separated. The mystery surrounding the absent mother is embedded early but is played out slowly throughout the evening until resolved in the last stanza. 

There is a hint of Satre’s Huis Clos (No Exit) in the narrative – an insinuation of déjà vu; of doing it all again – but to tell you more would be to give too much away and this is a play that needs no spoiler. 

Suffice to say that late in the play the siblings are visited by Roland (Matthew Norton) and Katie (Michelle Leuthart), a couple who had befriended the children’s mother. They bring food and gifts and are visiting to check that everything is all right. It’s not, of course, and to find out what happens – and it’s well worth the admission price – you’ll have to brave the elements and experience it for yourself.  

Norton and Leuthart bring experience and skill to their roles and Norton, in particular, cleverly draws many of the threads of the plot together in one of those ‘ah, now I understand’ moments.

The miniscule role of the man upstairs is a fascinating one. He’s ever-present and, even though we half see him only briefly, he provides a Pinteresque sense of menace to the evening. He is the outside world, the constant threat that at any moment the children could be exposed.   

While the production’s dénouement is powerful and effective, the final moments are somewhat romanticised, allowing us to focus on ‘happy ending’ when this is perhaps not quite justified. Stenham the realist isn’t one to let her characters – or us – off the hook that easily and some doubt about the sibling’s future might have been a good alternative to explore. 

I took my nine year old son – also Finn – to Tusk Tusk and he was most impressed by the whole thing.  His comments after the performance were thoughtful and he had clearly been moved by the plight of the young people whose journey he had just witnessed on the stage. It says a lot for the clarity of the narrative and the effectiveness of the performances that a child could be so moved by the situation and drawn so completely in by the performances and the production. 

While the content may sound heavy, this is a play you should seriously consider experiencing. There are wonderful moments of lightness and levity and some stunning scripting which will both entertain and move you. There’s also room for growth for the actors and this is never a bad thing. 

Auckland Theatre Company is to be commended for undertaking projects such as this that make it a model theatre for the 21st century. 

– – – – – – – – – – –
There’s an odd metaphor for acting in contemporary fictional television. In the space of one evening an observer can take in Criminal Minds, NCIS, and CSI. Embedded in the content of each of these three shows is the essence of acting and in particular the actor’s craft of discovery. Every actor needs to profile their character. Each character must be analyzed, examined, evaluated and questioned again until they completely reveal themselves to warts-and-all scrutiny.

On another level actors rely exclusively on the evidence to guide them in making choices that are relevant to the narrative; evidence gleaned from the text and its rational interpretation. If there are lingering questions the text will invariably provide the answers. 

And instinct? Where does that fit in? Well, that’s where NCIS’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs comes in. At the end of the day as actors we have to go with the gut. Sometimes this can be illuminating and sometimes not.

Acting, of course, is more than this but it’s a good start. Relationships can be soundly built and the understanding of the audience factored in. Some of this is learned, some of it intuitive and these young actors punch above their weight throughout.  


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