U Boat Down Under

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

27/07/2006 - 05/08/2006

Production Details

Written and directed by Peter Tait

Presented by U Boat Company

After a successful world premiere in March, Peter Tait (Return of the King and Back River Road) brings his humorous historical based piece of physical theatre to Wellington.

It was in the summer of 1945 that a German U boat U 862 under the command of Heinrich Timms, visited the east coast of New Zealand. No torpedoes were ever fired, but there has been conjecture ever since, as to what the submarine was doing here. Did the crew ever come ashore? What did they get up to, while they were here? Maybe one of them stayed.

A play has been written concerned with members of the German U boat crew; who come ashore onto an isolated Far North beach; to milk a cow and kill a sheep. A sailor, by the name of Kronfeld, fails to return to the U boat, falls in love with a local gal and remains in New Zealand. There are suspicions concerning his nationality, but his German identity remains known to very few. They came ashore…and one of them stayed.

Mary  -  Josephine Davison
Michael Kronfeld  -  Michael Lawrence
Mrs Green  -  Donna Akerston
Lieutenant/Dave  -  Christopher Brougham
Otto/Tom  -  Jon McLeary
Kapitan  -  Peter Tait

Lighting design - Rob Larsen
Operator/Stage Manage - Jo Bunce
Poster/flyer graphics - Adele Jackson
Music - Billy Kristian / Schelmish
Publicity - Christopher Brougham

Theatre ,

1 hr 50 mins, incl. interval

Achtung! The Germans have come

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 31st Jul 2006

U Boat Down Under is in the comic tradition of the movie The Russians are Coming, in which a Soviet submarine runs aground off the coast of New England during the Cold War. The unsophisticated locals are sent into a spin, just as the townsfolk of 19th century Adelaide got all hot and bothered when the Russians were believed to have invaded Australia in Ralph Peterson’s delightful stage comedy The Night of the Ding Dong.

Originally conceived as a movie, U Boat Down Under has been turned into a piece of popular theatre about a German U Boat (U 862) under the command of Heinrich Timms which apparently visited the east coast of New Zealand in the summer of 1945.

Rural myths suggest that some of the crew came ashore and one of the men stayed. Peter Tait builds on these events and during the first half of the comedy we follow the landing of three of the sailors in search of meat, milk, and a place for a quiet smoke. The second half takes place after the U Boat has sailed away and is all about how Michael Kronfeld (Michael Lawrence), who gets left behind in the land which Hitler believed was populated by monkey men who lived in trees, is assimilated into the tiny rural community.

The only person who rumbles to the fact that Kronfeld is a German is Dave, a typical taciturn Kiwi bloke (well played by Christopher Brougham) but every time he tries to reveal Kronfeld’s identity his strategies backfire including a rugby game, a drinking game, and a rather more deadly game with a shotgun. But Mary (Josephine Davison), Dave’s girlfriend, is a bit more welcoming as is Mrs Green, her gin swigging aunty, who is a Kiwi Mrs Malaprop. She is played by Donna Akersten who also appears as a sheep which the sailors catch and eat.

The play is simply presented with scaffolding and ladders serving well as the submarine, the farmhouse and a butcher’s shop. However, there is a hurried air about the production and it is a pity that more time had not been spent on sound effects, lighting, and tailoring the film structure of the script more effectively for the stage.

It all went down a treat for the second night audience though some of the younger members of the audience were perplexed by Mrs Green drawing lines down the back of Mary’s legs before they went to the local hop.


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Craft founders in shallows

Review by John Smythe 29th Jul 2006

The story goes that early in 1945 a German U Boat surfaced off the East Coast of the North Island, some crew members came ashore one night to purloin some fresh milk and mutton, and one of them stayed.

Peter Tait’s U Boat Down Under uses ‘poor theatre’ devices to play with this ‘what if’. Upon, beneath, behind and before some fairly modern scaffolding (no set designer credited but the space is lit by Rob Larsen), the performers evoke a submarine down under and surfaced, a beach, hillside, paddock, shearing shed, farm house, butcher’s shop and rugby field. And an Olympic race track.

Jack Lovelock and Peter Snell book-end the story, lapping the stage and running rings around the world at respective Olympic Games. The crackling radio voice of Hitler evokes WW2 and his description of New Zealanders as "monkey men" gives the converse of the prevailing notion of all Germans as baby-slaying Nazis.

A soccer ball speaks volumes about confinement initially and is instrumental in progressing the tale until – inevitably – it is superseded by the oval variety in a wacky rugby match that brings a whole new meaning to ‘chucking a dummy’. Three strung-together inner tubes allow the actors to evoke a surging sea to great effect as they come ashore.

But it is the central characters, their stories, growth and evolving relationships, that sustain a play beyond sketch dimensions. It is the way the component parts accumulate around and through the central themes, that takes a play from anecdote to a story worth telling over a longer time (in this case, 110 minutes, including interval).

On the surface, U Boat Down Under is a love story between people who are supposed to be enemies: a premise as old as drama itself. This particular version plays out the universal ‘culture clash’ theme in an historical and specifically Kiwi context. It also has the potential to distil the lethal implications of intolerance, and the values of embracing difference, in a way that speaks to the here and now, at domestic and international levels.

Michael Kronfeld (Michael Lawrence), is a man who loves food, wine and "fußball", and hates being confined to the U Boat on which he is the unappreciated cook. Mary (Josephine Davison), is a free-spirited farm girl who does a bit of Home Guard coast guarding and is instinctively resisting the limitations life would offer with Kiwi farmer Dave (Christopher Brougham).

These three actors play this triangle with an authenticity that belies their stereotypes, almost elevating them to archetypes. Also sounding a true note is Jon McLeary’s butcher Tom, who gives Kronfeld – pretending to be Dalmatian – a job and takes him on his own terms, appreciating his skills, know-how and work ethic.

With Dave being an arrogant bigot and Mary’s war-widowed aunty, Mrs Green (Donna Akersten), being an ignorant bigot – evidenced through Kiwi Malapropisms and amusingly played at revue sketch level – they don’t exactly stand as worthy adversaries in the larger exploration of intolerance.

It doesn’t help that this theme – this sense of what the play is really about – doesn’t really surface until the second half. A lot of the first half is taken up with the mechanics of getting Kronfeld off the sub, into the remote East coast farming community, and keeping him there (via the aforementioned football). But amid the often funny shenanigans of the U Boat crew – Tait as Kapitan, Brougham as Lieutenant, McLeary as Otto – played out in heavy pseudo-German accents even when they’re speaking their own language to each other, the tolerance/ intolerance theme fails to feature in any form.

There is no theatrical convention or narrative context established that allows for lampooning rather than authentic characterisation – albeit using the ‘poor theatre’ devices mentioned above – so the early scenes sit awkwardly between the two possibilities. (If, for example, the incumbents of a Gisborne vineyard had gathered to tell the tale of its founding, the play could gain a greater sense of purpose as well as a stylistic rationale.)  

Also missing is any point of entry for empathy, not even with Kronfeld, who is the only character to move on into the substantive story. So in human terms, the most memorable part of the early scenes is the gag where the Lieutenant anticipates his first cigarette in weeks, only to find the sea’s got to them first.

Davison’s Mary does attract the audience with her fearless independence, and of course we understand her interest in this amiable, whole-man Kronfeld compared with taciturn and mean-spirited Dave. As we get to know them better, and they get to know each other, it would be a hard-hearted audience member indeed who did not wish them well. But the love between Mary and Kronfeld is too easily won, too automatic, to fully engage our interest and concern.

Nothing really challenges our sense of good/bad, right/wrong. And when the inevitable battle for the woman finally comes to a head, the outcome is entirely predictable. While for a moment actual lives might appear to be at stake, there is not enough convincing jeopardy in its playing to grip our concern. It neither feels like a dramatic climax nor hits home as a microcosm of the human failing that continues to threaten the world at large.

With an epilogue telling us they got married, grew grapes and had produced a good Riesling by the time Peter Snell was wowing the world, the play bobs about in the shallows as a bit of local folk lore amiably dramatised with good bits of theatrical ingenuity and wit.

If U Boat Down Under was crafted to plumb greater depths, identify its core theme, stabilise itself with a theatrical convention that made its style coherent, and maximise the opportunities for jeopardy, its full potential as a resonant drama and comedy could be realised. I hope it gets the opportunity to grow that way.

Peter Tait and his U Boat Company have clearly poured lots of commitment into this project. It got its first outing at the Bay of Islands Arts Festival in March (with a completely different cast) and – as I understand it – he has hired Downstage as a venue to offer this iteration, in a brief season that competes head-on with the film festival.

It is extremely important that new works like this get the chance to grow and evolve, and it’s great to see this process happening at Downstage again. But why do Tait and his company have to invest their all to make it happen? It should be the core business of the recurrently-funded companies themselves to grow such work from an early stage. That’s where all the state-sourced increase in theatre funding has gone, including the last lot. Project funding remains seriously under-resourced. So why are individuals and ad-hoc co-ops being left to do the most fundamentally important work in New Zealand theatre?


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