Who Needs Sleep Anyway?

Downstage Theatre, Wellington

18/08/2007 - 22/08/2006

Production Details

A fun frivolous comedy for anyone who’s ever been a baby!  

New Zealand’s best-known and most successful playwright, Roger Hall, joins forces with daughter Pip Hall for the first time to create this delightful comedic celebration of 100 years of bringing up babies in New Zealand.

In 2007 Roger and Pip were commissioned by Plunket to celebrate its centenary by writing the hilarious production, Who Needs Sleep Anyway?

Who Needs Sleep Anyway? follows the early years of the irrepressible Baby Plunket (played by Peter Hambleton) and his hapless parents (played by Nick Dunbar and Mel Dodge).  As "Baby P" grows and thrives, he explores the remarkable history of Plunket and Plunket nurses, without whom generations of New Zealanders would not be quite so hale and hearty.

Plunket was born in Dunedin on 14 May 1907, at a time when infant mortality rates in New Zealand were shockingly high and health services for babies were woefully inadequate. It was the brain-child of Dr (later Sir) Frederick Truby King (played by Paul McLaughlin), who saw the need for a Society that would ‘help the mothers and save the babies’.  Today, over 91 percent of babies born in New Zealand are Plunket babies.

Who Needs Sleep Anyway? playfully celebrates the work of Plunket and the experience of ordinary Kiwi Mums and Dads, struggling to make sense of their new role in life and the unpredictable behaviour of their "best babies in the world".

In turns hilarious, wonderful and emotional (rather like parenthood really) this comedy delights and entertains.  So join us for a fun-filled evening of frolics and frivolity, hysterics and history, songs and satire, in this joyful celebration of our heritage.

‘Who Needs Sleep Anyway?’ certainly hit the spot.’ ODT

Book at Downstage Theatre on 04 801 6946

Cast list
Polly, Poor Mother, Anderson Twin, 50s Mother - MEL DODGE
Paddy, Lamb #2, Editor, Anderson Twin, 50s Mother, Baby Farmer - NICK DUNBAR
Nana, Bella, Woman, Baby Karori, Husband, Jude Dobson, Dick #1 - JENNIFER LUDLAM
Truby King, Pregnant Woman, Baby Robert, Baby Upper Hutt, Dick #2, Jason Gunn - PAUL McLAUGHLIN
Daisy, Baby Newlands, Lamb #1 - JANE WADDELL

Set Designer - John Hodgkins
Lighting Designer - Lisa Maule
Costume Designer - Zoë Fox

Production Manager  - Ross Joblin
Original Music - Michael Nicholas Williams
Lyrics - Paul Jenden
Choreography - Lyn Pringle
Original Props            - Peter King
Additional Props - John Hodgkins
Original AV/Sound - Alan Surgener
Stage Manager - Dushka Blakely/Simon Rayner
Production Assistan - Helena Coulton (Toi Whakaari secondee)
Technical Operator - Marc Edwards
Publicity - Brianne Kerr Publicity
Production Photography - Stephen A'Court

Actors give it their all – but why are we watching it?

Review by Simon Sweetman 31st Aug 2007

[This review was written for the Sunday Star Times and not run because they had already reviewed the Fortune Theatre production in Dunedin.]

I cannot believe that this play has had positive reviews. It is a serious waste of time and talent. Yes, it is obvious that Roger Hall carried New Zealand theatre on his back across several decades but his plan to provide a pension by pantomime (from saving theatre to Theatresaver?) is an insult; the equivalent of those albums Carlos Santana releases every other year with a cast of tired heroes and young newbies all trying to steal thunder, while a formerly great guitarist cruises on auto-pilot.

Who Needs Sleep Anyway?, written with daughter Pip and running like a giant advert for Plunket (commissioned by them to celebrate the centenary) is Hall’s rather lazy attempt to poke fun and pass over vague pathos about a subject everyone knows: babies. We all either have them, or will have them. And if not, we can hark back to the fact that we all started off there. So what?

A very talented, hard-working cast do their best – leaping in and out of costumes, creating characters in an instant – but really, they are given little to work with. The musical numbers (lyrics by Paul Jenden, tunes by Michael Nicholas Williams) are close to embarrassing, punctuating scenes almost at random. The vocals are dutifully attempted but the songs only re-state and over-state what we’ve already been watching. And the tinny pre-recorded synthesized "music" is cringe-inducing.

Peter Hambleton (as Baby P) is superb in his efforts to play a baby-character, the narrator – and seemingly the cheer-leader for this rather average sequence of skits masquerading as a play – and providing various adult voices; in some cases he manages to do many of these tasks simultaneously.

Jennifer Ludlam also deserves a mention – for dipping in and out of, at my count, eight characters. And no one on stage is terrible. Director Susan Wilson handles the quick changes well and the use of over-sized props and hold-up-cards (pantomime/comedy-review staples) is all very well tied-in and handled. But again, the nagging question – why are we actually watching this? It is nowhere near as funny as the Halls would want to have you believe. It is, like the actual delivery of a child, rather laboured.

I have enjoyed Roger Hall’s Christmas pantomimes, certainly, but this just seems like a wasted opportunity, something knocked out quickly to justify a pay-cheque. Thankfully the actors do give it their all if you do decide to go. But I would have preferred an extra dose of that sleep I’m apparently not going to get in the coming years.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


Joy Tansley September 1st, 2007

I note you imply you have not yet had children, Simon. This means you don't have a subjective empathy with the material. Fair enough. Conversely there are vast numbers out there who do, it seems. It may not be a ground-breaking show. Nor does it surprise us or extend our insights into parenthood (even, I suspect, for those who have not experienced it). Even so, it does take a certain talent to encapsulate common experience to the point that hundreds of people at a time laugh in recognition. Not to be sneezed at.

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Unchallenging fun night out

Review by Melody Nixon 22nd Aug 2007

Those who’ve been through the wonderful nightmare of raising a child, and subscribe to the refrain that theirs is ‘The Best Baby in the Whole World,’ may find Who Needs Sleep Anyway? a humorous means of getting in touch with some aspects of New Zealand baby culture. While dealing predominately with white middle-class families, and staying very light on social commentary, the show by Roger Hall and his newly-babied daughter Pip is fun and frivolous, and a good chance to see grown men in nappies.

The show is commissioned by Plunket, on the back of the kind of innovative idea that has kept the community organisation running for an impressive 100 years now. Roger and Pip Hall create a framework to explore the history and services of the organisation, through the story of two new parents; Polly (Mel Dodge) and Paddy (Nick Dunbar). Yet their story forms more of an ‘illustrated guide’ to Plunket, as certain scenes take on an almost advertorial tone; with reference too to at least one commercial baby product company. Furthermore, with the emphasis the Plunket organisation places on Maori child health and Te Tiriti O Waitangi, it is disappointing to see the lack of any historical or contemporary reference to M_ori. In my view this precludes the show in its current form from having value as an educational piece outside of Wellington, or mainstream city theatres.

Peter Hambleton, resembling quite strongly the baby in the promotional material, is the narrator for Downstage’s journey through white middle-class child rearing, and he fills the booties of “Baby P” excellently. This stretch-and-grow clad bubba demonstrates all facets of babyhood from ‘pooping’ in nappies to spitting out mushy food, and forms an informative bond with Plunket Nurse Daisy (played graciously and entertainingly by Jane Waddell). Credit must be give to Hambleton for approaching this undignified role with apparent total ease, and whipping up audience enthusiasm.

In a range of supporting roles Jennifer Ludlam is in her usual fine form, particularly scintillating as the 1970s traffic cop “Rick” (or was that “Dick”?), as pampered “Baby Karori” and as nagging, omniscient “Nana”. Mel Dodge also fills her earnest role as Polly with gusto, charging the part with flamboyant pantomime and gesticulation, under Susan Wilson’s apt directing. Wilson’s directing style is perhaps most suited to this type of theatre, and she strongly brings forth the perky light-heartedness the play’s success depends upon.

This light-heartedness and humour centres on unexpected meanings and word puns, which gain many laughs from the audience. Lines such as the following, in a PlunketLine dialogue between Nurse Daisy and a mysterious caller are particular successes:
– Kia ora Plunket line.
– Help… The baby just swallowed a condom.
– Oh dear.
– Oh! It’s ok! We’ve found another one.

Much humour is derived too from clichéd gender stereotypes. When Baby P and his dad get some time together for example, they clink bottles (milk and ‘XXX’ respectively) and argue over Sport/Playboy channels on TV. Dad Paddy likes sport; mum Polly likes ‘art’. Boys wear blue and play rugby; girls wear pink and do ballet. The light parodying of these exceptionally narrow stereotypes does not go far enough to debunk them, but rather reinforces them by playing on their ‘normalness’. While the constraints must be quite large for producing a play of this kind with wide appeal, the audience should be given more credit in their thinking about male and female roles.

Finally, with the potential to engage in a vast amount of social commentary, especially on the current national issue of child abuse, it’s disappointing that Who Needs Sleep Anyway? does not go beyond minor, perfunctory hints (embodied in a couple of brief encounters with “Josie” (Ludlam) a solo-mum who’s afraid she’ll harm her children). As it stands then, Who Needs Sleep Anyway? is a fun, albeit unchallenging night out at the theatre, with plenty of parochial feel good factor and straight up entertainment, a bit like an after-school TV show for adults.

Originally published in The Lumière Reader.


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Light-weight and cheerful

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 20th Aug 2007

Who Needs Sleep Anyway? is a pantomime from the pens of the first father and daughter playwrighting team in the history of New Zealand (World?) theatre. It has cross-dressing, topical jokes, occasional song and dance numbers, funny costumes and disguises, madcap sequences, audience participation (not at all threatening), and a happy ending.

It is also a very light-hearted and light weight celebration of the centenary of the Plunket Society. You won’t learn any more than most Kiwis already know about the history of Sir Truby King, Karitane, and Plunket Nurses because most of the time is spent tracing the growth of the hero, Baby P, from conception to the age of 5 when he’s off to school.

Sir Truby and Lady King (Peter McLaughlin/Jennifer Ludlam) do pop in now and then and so do Jason Gunn, Jude Dobson and even Selwyn Toogood for a second, as well as a couple of marvelous macho 1970s traffic cops in a sequence about child restraints in cars.

We do learn about the strict regimentation of feeding babies in the 1950s, the availability of Plunket nurses at the end of a phone and the problems they faced as well the royal receptions they received when they made home visits to check up on a baby and fill in the baby’s progress in the Plunket book. Any criticisms of Plunket (its perceived dictatorial nature/advocacy of circumcision) are ignored.

Baby P is not only the hero but also the energetic emcee of the show who jollies the audience along displaying cue cards which tell us when to boo, cheer, or applaud. He is played with great warmth and gusto by Peter Hambleton in a light blue stretch and grow suit, which makes him resemble Homer Simpson.

His parents are played by Mel Dodge and Nick Dunbar who amusingly suffer the slings and arrows of sleeplessness and the problems of potty training. Jennifer Ludlam plays Nana who believes it’s never too early to potty train a child and she brings in a blue potty for Baby P, accompanied by the strains of Thus Spake Zarathustra, as if it were the Holy Grail.  Jane Waddell plays the quintessential (breezy, efficient, and never had a child of her own) Plunket nurse with her usual comic accuracy.

It’s fun, funny and lively, except for three scenes that last about a minute each when we are wrenched from the comedy of bringing up Baby P to the reality of a mother who is at the end of her tether. These scenes are a reminder of the dark side of motherhood and they sit uneasily in this pantomime about poos, wees, breast feeding, and the occasional nod to a hundred years of Plunket’s history.


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Book your baby sitters immediately

Review by John Smythe 19th Aug 2007

The keys to the assured success of the Downstage season of Roger and Pip Hall’s revue-style comedy Who Needs Sleep Anyway? are relevance, respect and release of stress. Pitched at anyone who has been a baby, it’s an opportunity for all of us to celebrate those who brought us into the world and through our first five years, especially if we were Plunket* babies (which includes over 90 percent of those born in New Zealand over the past century).

Those currently engaged in the war zone of parenthood are the most likely to experience the happy catharsis of laughter at the recognition of shared experiences. Likewise Plunket nurses themselves (it was Plunket who commissioned the Halls to write the show for their centenary celebrations and it premiered at Dunedin’s Fortune Theatre on 4 May this year).

To some extent redolent of Theatre-In-Education shows, Who Needs Sleep Anyway? mostly recalls the universal phenomenon of medical reviews, where intelligent, creative professionals are compelled to take the piss out of themselves, their often stressful work and the institutions that manage them, because if they didn’t they’d go mad. Like an attentive parent herself, director Susan Wilson ensures we remain constantly stimulated for the 90-odd minutes running time (bisected by an interval that is probably needed more by the hard-working cast than the audience, although the recurring references to potty training, etc, could well make visits to the amenities more urgent).

Central to the show is the ingeniously conceived Baby P, engagingly played by Peter Hambleton, who brings multiple voices and states of being – growing child, observer-cum-commentator, spokesperson for all babies, narrator, special friend of Plunket Nurse Daisy – to the role. His sometimes literally laid-back style belies an astute capacity to shift the tone, focus and mood as required by the wide-ranging and multi-facetted text.

Also riding the roller coaster of new-found wants, needs and emotions are his first-time-parents, Polly and Paddy, given the full depth of commedia truth by Mel Dodge and Nick Dunbar respectively. Dodge in particular reaches right into the core of maternal emotions to sometimes agonising comedic effect. And Dunbar’s strong singing voice is a great asset in the oddly interpolated musical numbers.

One of the most memorable Mum/Dad/Toddler sequences is the car seat episode (also involving moustachioed 1970s traffic cops, Dicks #1 & #2), which mixes matters of life and death, crime and punishment, conflicts of strategy, stretches of tolerance, moral dilemmas and the full range of emotions to produce an hysterically harrowing experience for all concerned.
Dodge and Dunbar also do a great turn as The Anderson Twins in a 1950s Baby Show, while Dodge plays sundry other mothers and Dunbar gives us an newspaper editor, a 50s mother, a baby farmer and a child-friendly waiter.

Jane Waddell’s core character is Daisy, the strict but warm-hearted Plunket Nurse, who is far too busy to have babies of her own. Perhaps the strongest social comment in the show comes from her manning of the Plunket Line, firmly fobbing off baby-sitting husbands (for example) who are traumatised by relatively trivial matters, in order to give due attention to a stressed out solo mother who is scared she will hurt her children: tough life meets tough love. It is implied that the under-resourcing of recent times suggests a tragic outcome in this scenario.

In the Baby Show, Waddell gets to contrast Daisy with a broadly comic turn as go-getting ‘Baby Newlands’. She is also the main glove-puppeteer (assisted at times by Dunbar, I think) of two little lambs who come into the story at Truby King’s Karitane cottage* and pop back from time to time to bear silent but eloquent witness to the action.

Dr Truby King, Plunket’s founding father,* is played with genial affection by Paul McLaughlin who also gives us a trendy ‘too posh to push’ Karori mother-to-be, Baby Robert, Baby Upper Hutt, Dick #2 and Jason Gunn, co-presenting TV reality-cum-infomercial shows that exploit parental fears for profit (another astute piece of social satire).

As for Jennifer Ludlam, her quick flits in and out of eight characters deserve an accolade in themselves, quite apart from the instant authenticity she brings to roles as diverse as Nana (Polly’s potty training-obsessed mother), Josie the stressed-out solo Mum, a stylish Friend, a husband at ante-natal classes, Baby Karori, Dick #1 and Jude Dobson, co-presenter of the afore-mentioned TV shows.

The role I’d like to see developed more, or at least less trivialised, is Bella King. As the unsung partner in founding and growing the Plunket movement – without whom Dr Truby was lost, when she died too young – she deserves to be seen as something more than the timid little twit hiding behind her husband (possibly valid as the way a male-centric world perceived her, but surely this is a chance to give her a better rap).

The songs – original music by Michael Nicholas Williams, lyrics by Paul Jenden – pop up intermittently and, sung to pre-recorded synthesised music, are cheesy little numbers that skate over the heart of the matters or hold up the progressing story, and therefore seem to have questionable value. 

The sketchier routines are well cartooned, the historical material is efficiently articulated and integrated, and the paean to Plunket is astutely balanced with a gentle critique of its history – e.g. the fund-raising Baby Shows. On opening night the still-evolving script had been over-trimmed to the extent that the provenance of the Plunket* name was omitted entirely, and I gather that is to be remedied.

But the abiding impact comes from the scenes where the trials and joys of parenthood and the vulnerabilities of the tiny tots collide in ways that are either touching, spectacular or both – e.g. the Caffe L’Affare encounter between Ludlam’s lactose-intolerant and wanting-what-she’s-not-allowed Baby Karori and Hambleton’s Baby P, who has been given marshmallows by the well-meaning waiter, turning a quiet morning coffee for Polly (Dodge) and Karori Mother (McLaughlin) into a loud and dramatic display of hyper-activity.

While at first glance the show might seem light and fluffy, it has potency because it is rooted in deep respect, understanding and compassion for those who have lived – or are living – the experience of parenthood, and for the century-old society that has done so much to help out. There is a slight sense that the darker tones of social comment are a bit token, but given the target audience, it is entirely valid to place the central focus on the first child of a middle class Pakeha family, while allowing the sense of other realities to filter through from the Plunket Nurse’s experience.

Young parents should give themselves a break and book tickets and their baby sitters immediately, or alternate girls’ nights out with boys’ nights out.

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*For readers not of this part of the world, the organisation now known as Plunket (slogan: caring for young families) was founded 100 years ago in Dunedin by mental hospital superintendent Dr Frederick Truby King and his wife Bella. Their cottage in Karitane became the first Karitane Home for Babies. Within a year the movement to educate mothers in ‘domestic hygiene’ and mothercraft, and promulgate Dr King’s ideology of ‘regularity of feeding, sleeping and bowel habits’, had attracted the patronage of Lady Victoria Plunket, mother of eight and wife of the then Governor General Lord Plunket, whose gave her/his name to the society.


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