Who Needs Sleep Anyway?
04/05/2007 - 26/05/2007
by Roger Hall and Pip Hall
directed by Conrad Newport
Roger and Pip Hall combine forces to present a celebration of Plunket in New Zealand. At times hilarious, wonderful and emotional – rather like parenthood really – this play will delight and entertain. Commissioned by Plunket and produced by the Fortune Theatre, ‘Who Needs Sleep Anyway?’ is a song of exultation for the Plunket nurses (and Plunket mothers!) without whom generations of New Zealanders would not be quite so hale and hearty!
The Plunket Society was born in Dunedin on May 14th 190. It was a routine, unremarkable day, except for one thing. At the Town Hall in the early afternoon there was an unaccustomed bustle. Dr Truby King, Superintendent of Seacliff Mental Hospital and a well known campaigner for a number of causes, had called a meeting of ladies at 2.15pm. Some came by tram, several came by carridge, a few in those noisy newfangled motors. These were women with both a social conscience and a degree of influence. For the past 100 years Plucket has grown and developed; stretching the width and breadth of New Zealand. Happy Birthday to all Plunket babies!
Meet Baby P, a giant wise-cracking baby with attitude. From the moment he’s born until he’s off to school at the age of five, he takes us on a journey about the trials and tribulations of what it’s really like to be a baby. From first smile, first tooth, first steps through the terrible twos, toilet training, tantrums, and out the other side, Baby P entertains us with his frank and flippant commentary of what it really means to be a baby in the 21st century.
Meet Polly and Paddy, the overtired, well-meaning parents of Baby P. We track the ups and downs of being a first time Mum and Dad. Will their hopes and dreams of being new parents be met? Will they ever get another good night’s sleep? Will they ever have sex again? Through Polly and Paddy we explore the joys and hardships that every new parent goers through with heart and humour.
Meet Nurse Daisy, a Plunket nurse from a bygone era. Scarily strict and severe, she explores the Plunket milestones over the last one hundred years – the development of the Plunket nurse, the Karitane movement, car seats, fundraising, immunization, well- child checks, Plunket line, and that iconic record of baby’s progress, The Plunket Book.
And lastly, the man who gave life to Plunket. Meet Sir Truby King. The life and times of the man himself, his hard-working wife Bella, a hobbyhorse and several pet lambs. From humble beginnings in Dunedin through his tireless campaigning for children’s welfare to the only private citizen ever to be given a state funeral, Sir Truby is one of the most colourful characters from New Zealand’s history.
Narrated by a giant baby and an old fashioned Plunket nurse, “Who Needs Sleep Anyway?” is a fun filled evening of fun, frivolity, hysterics and history, songs and satire, as we celebrate one hundred years of bringing up children in New Zealand.
Plunket originally approached us to write something for the centenary, the idea being two short plays to be shown on the same night. This idea was quickly vetoed in favour of collaborating on a show together. The show format enabled us to explore a wide range of topics and styles, many different colourful characters, as well as incorporating 100 years of history. Eighteen months later, Who Needs Sleep Anyway? is the result. Pip, former Plunket Baby and now Plunket mother (Billie, nearly five and Tamai, three) concentrated on the contemporary aspects of the show. She was able to tap into her own experiences as a new parent to bring Polly and Paddy to life as well as going through the same milestone with her children as Baby P experiences. Roger did much of the historical research and fell in love with what he discovered. He was spoilt for choice and in the end the tricky part was deciding what to leave out. “It’s an amazing organization, having done so much good and achieved so much over the years.” Both writers also talked to Plunket nurses who are working today and are full of admiration for the work Plunket does after realizing what a tough job it often can be, and the grim situations the nurses can find themselves in. They found it ironic that, in some ways, Plunket has gone full circle and many of the conditions that led to its foundation are now back with us again.
Informative skits in praise of Plunket
Review by Terry MacTavish 07th May 2007
Fortunately one is upheld by an immense sense of virtue when attending historical-educational productions, so any mirth is a bonus. It can’t have been easy to have to make hilarious comedy let alone a soul-stirring drama out of the ultra-respectable Plunket Society, and there are spots in Who Needs Sleep Anyway? when the strain tells. But Hall and Hall have anchored the play with the world’s biggest and bonniest bouncing baby ever, and Mark Neilson’s ebullient performance as the gigantic Baby P melts the audience entirely.
This play has been especially commissioned to mark the centenary of the snappily named Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children. Better known as the Plunket Society, it was started right here in Dunedin by Truby King, knighted hero, and his wife Bella, who probably contributed a whole lot more than she was given credit for. This means that there will be no scintillating exposé of the great man, and not a great deal for the writers to do but try desperately to make dramatic his life work.
Roger Hall apparently concentrated on the history, teaching us about the appallingly high death rate among babies a century ago, about humanized milk and vaccinations, baby farming and Karitane nurses, while daughter Pip was weaving through it all a contemporary tale of a rather stereotypical young couple depending on Plunket to help them raise Baby P to the stage where they can wave him off to school.
We don’t get the chance to engage deeply with any of the historical figures and the episodic pattern can drag, but director Conrad Newport is no stranger to bringing history to life, having recently directed the touring King and Country, and he keeps this production bright and breezy, indulging us with some fun Coarse Acting touches.
Who Needs Sleep Anyway? is also going to tour and the set reflects this: coat-stands for costumes on either side; a screen for projections of children’s drawings to illuminate the scenes; and coloured blocks for the actors to arrange as furniture. The actors play up to ten characters each, with the help of nothing more than a few key costume bits and bright cardboard cartoon props. And a busy little crew they are, throwing themselves enthusiastically into each new character.
Kelley Young and Craig Geenty are chiefly memorable as the sleep-deprived parents of Baby P, succeeding in winning audience sympathy despite some clichéd situations (the wife who plans on natural childbirth screaming for drugs at the first pangs; the husband insisting on recording every gory moment on his handycam).
Joel Allen carries off with aplomb his main role as the valiant Sir Truby, entering to a trumpet fanfare and remaining noble even when galloping his literal hobbyhorse round the stage, while Cheryl Amos is appealing as his supportive and practical wife Bella. The audience enjoyed the doubling of Allen as a manic Jason Gunn accompanied by Amos as Jude Dobson, but fell silent as the pair spun a rather tasteless Wheel of Misfortune to hand out various hideous diseases as prizes.
Sara Best is the only actor to retain the same character, and she holds together the history side with demure charm as the Plunket nurse named Daisy (yes yes possibly just to allow the frantic mums to sing "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do" but it does suit her!). Her no-nonsense Mary Poppins air sweetens the medicine of all the statistics we are expected to swallow.
That the play is more than a series of informative skits in praise of Plunket however is due to the marvellous Mark Neilson as Baby P, an enormous challenge for any parent but still adorable in his stretch’n’grows, wriggling his rolypoly bum and pattering his fat little buttery feet, confiding, "It sucks, being a baby".
Adult actors as children are nothing new of course, but the device is well justified here and Baby P is a hugely successful creation. Writer Caryl Churchill, who specified that in her Cloud 9 a 5-year-old girl should be played by a man, said this was to indicate the powerful emotional impact of a small child, and that reasoning is utterly appropriate to show how massively a new baby looms in the lives of its young parents, helpless without the wise guidance of Plunket…
So although the play is too long drawn out and the jokes are a tad predictable, Hall and Hall have managed to make the lessons palatable. And after all, where would we be without our iconic Plunket Society? I mean, did you know that hospitals wouldn’t take children under the age of two?! Most of us owe something to the grand old institution – in fact I should declare an interest: my aunt Jocelyn Ryburn was National President for all of my childhood. Plunket was a world first, and worthy of this celebration. Not for nothing was Truby King given a state burial, and the streets lined with prams for his funeral cortege!
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Nappy slapstick hits the spot
Review by Barbara Frame 07th May 2007
Roger and Pip Hall’s assignment was to dramatise Plunket’s century of history, and to make it fun.
The result is a bright slapstick comedy in which episodes from Plunket’s annals (Truby King takes on the mission of helping New Zealand mothers and saving their babies, Karitane Hospitals start up, and so on) with snippets of social history (baby farming, campaigns for fluoride and car seats), and milestones from the life of Baby P (from feeding and the horrors of nappies through to the first schoolbag), who is played gleefully by the very adult-sized Mark Neilson.
Nielson and Sara Best, as the starchy, irreproachable, and very nice Nurse Daisy, are the only actors with single parts, while Joel Allen, Cheryl Amos, Kelley Young, and Craig Geenty swap almost seamlessly between multiple roles (my favourite was Cheryl Amos’ take-off of television personality Jude Dobson).
Mostly, it works. The set is bright and nursery-like, the pace unrelenting, and the production has a generally polished air. Sometimes, though, the tension between informing an audience and entertaining it shows: now and then the good humour degenerates into banality, and the jokes are just not as funny as we expect from a Hall play.
Still, Who Needs Sleep Anyway? hit the spot with last night’s large audience, almost certainly consisting largely of people who have been both Plunket babies and Plunket parents, at its world premiere at the Fortune.
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