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Reviews

Suddenly Last Summer | Regional News

Suddenly Last Summer

Written by: Tennessee Williams

Directed by: Emily K. Brown

Gryphon Theatre, 20th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

As a 90-minute one-act play, this rarely performed work by American great Tennessee Williams is unusual. His work is always intense and lyrical and this piece is especially so. Its language is visceral and violent and yet devastatingly beautiful.

Society doyenne Violet has invited to her home a young doctor hoping to benefit from her philanthropy to discuss performing a lobotomy on Catherine, Violet’s young niece. Catherine was the only witness to the death of Violet’s son Sebastian and shutting her away in a mental hospital run by nuns hasn’t been enough to stop her babbling about what happened suddenly last summer in Spain when he met his end.

It’s tempting to resort to histrionics when performing Williams, but the excellent cast, under the careful direction of Emily K. Brown, exercise restraint in their performances which are all the more powerful because of it. As Catherine, Margot van de Water is astounding. We are left in no doubt as to the trauma caused by what she has witnessed and when she reveals the gruesome truth about Sebastian’s death, it is truly shocking.

Stephanie Gartrell clearly enjoys inhabiting the daiquiri-swilling shrew that is Violet and as the earnest Dr Cukrowicz, Slaine McKenzie excels. Helen Mackenzie and Finn Nacey provide energetic and petulant support as grasping relatives. Simran Rughani and Maria Buchanan make the most of their smaller roles as housemaid and nun.

The simple garden set with its lush pot plants and creeping ivy provides an appropriately sub-tropical background to the narrative. Whoever painted the floor deserves a special mention for their beautifully rendered flagstones.

The lighting (Riley Gibson) is exceptionally well designed and responsive to the action on stage and the wardrobe (Mandy Watkins and Cara Ngajar) is lush and period appropriate.

Everything about this production is polished and professional, which is even more impressive when you consider that the country went into COVID lockdown a week from its original opening in August. Full marks, Wellington Repertory Theatre.

Ted Talks Crimes | Regional News

Ted Talks Crimes

Written by: Jeremy Hunt and Ricky Dey

Directed by: Ben Ashby

BATS Theatre, 19th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

When performer Jeremy Hunt announced that Ted Talks Crimes is a work in progress, my jaw dropped open. I’ve never seen a more developed development season! On as part of the TAHI Festival of Solo Performance, this brilliant one-man show needs little improvement, but because Hunt asked, and seeing as I’m in the business of feedback…

Ted (Hunt) is a New York crim who collects money on behalf of his mafia boss, The Don. Ted’s chosen debt-extraction method is the talk of the town. He’s a formidable tickler. After tickling the life out of one too many down-and-out marks, he begins to re-evaluate his life decisions. What kind of legacy will he leave behind? Is tickling for money a good use of his time? And why is his cut so small… Wait, I mean, is he a good man?

So begins this mile-a-minute tale of soul-searching, vengeance, and deadly bananas.

Utilising different accents to great effect (occasionally slipping out of Ted’s Italian Brooklyn lilt but mostly keeping it up), Hunt embodies multiple characters with ease, flair, and commanding physicality. His sense of comic timing perfectly serves the script (Hunt and Ricky Dey), especially when it comes to the deliciously obscure anecdotes and references woven throughout. Ted Talks Crimes is rife with my favourite kind of absurdism, where the unusual and usual squelch into a potion of crab jelly that occasionally smacks you in the face, killing you instantly, but mostly smiles down at you from its innocuous jar on the shelf. I swear this reference is relevant.

Bekky Boyce’s lighting design effortlessly distinguishes the setting as we hop between a market, an office, a bar, and more. There’s just the right amount of set furnishings and props – many of which rouse a wicked laugh – but I’d love to see a louder and more dramatic sound design (director Ben Ashby) that hypes up the drama and plays into the emotional moments, like when Ted’s life is changed by a kindly gorilla.

Whānau | Regional News

Whānau

Directed by: Kerryn Palmer and Sally Richards

BATS Theatre, 19th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

The theme of this uplifting TAHI Festival production is exactly what you’d expect from the title – family. More precisely, “lifting the lid on the complexity of family relationships from disastrous to delicious”.

This aim is achieved through four actors (Emma Katene, Daniel Gagau, Ngahiriwa Rauhina, and Melissa Sutherland) performing 13 short extracts from 11 solo works by New Zealand writers. With the help of assorted chairs, a few bits of wardrobe, and a couple of props, they deliver warm, empathetic, poignant, and often laugh-out-loud vignettes of what it means to have whānau.

The playwrights’ whose work is showcased here are Vela Manusaute, Felix Desmarais, Rob Mokaraka, Jamie McCaskill, Toa Fraser, John Broughton, Emily Duncan, Tom Scott, Melissa Sutherland (doing admirable double duty as playwright and actor), and Nicola Pauling. Each has their own rich way of shining light on the trials of being human through the lens of family.

The lovingly created characters we meet over the hour of the production range from a miracle baby produced from the remaining half of a fallopian tube after several ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages, to an 11-year-old girl with a superhero Samoan mum, a literal and metaphorical Karen and her daughter, a young man revelling in his half-Māori/half-Pākehā ancestry, a family with projectile-vomiting children heading to the beach, and an angry mum whose kids have been removed by CYFS.

Co-directors Kerryn Palmer and Sally Richards have chosen their extracts carefully and well. In addition to being woven together by theme, the pieces flow seamlessly from one to the next with appropriate music, well-applied projection onto the back wall of the theatre, sensitive lighting, and some cool dance moves from the actors who occasionally interact.

The mark of a successful theatre production is that you’re left wanting more. I could have happily watched this group of talented actors telling their uniquely Kiwi stories with genuine pathos and humour well into the night.

No Time to Die | Regional News

No Time to Die

(M)

164 Mins

(3 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

While a fitting farewell to Daniel Craig’s James Bond, much of No Time to Die feels like a wash, rinse, repeat exercise. A committed and likeable ensemble cast and vicious action sequences keep it from growing stale, but on a scale of Craig’s Bond films, it winds up somewhere in the middle: not great, not bad, just okay.

A direct sequel to 2015’s Spectre, No Time to Die is the 25th entry in the James Bond franchise and the fifth to star Craig as the illusive MI6 agent. Bond has settled down with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) and ditched the secret agent life, until his old friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), shows up with a new mission: to rescue a kidnapped scientist and prevent the mysterious Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) from unleashing a deadly nanoscopic weapon on the world. Meanwhile, Bond must play nice with Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the new 007. 

Unlike the previous actors who have taken up the mantle, Craig’s Bond films are interconnected. It would seem the stage has been set for a grand finale, but instead, No Time to Die feels like a check list, a movie attempting to wrap up 15 years of story arcs and present an entertaining one-off adventure. Even with its 164-minute runtime, it’s too much to contain.

Given the wealth of characters crammed into this tale, it’s no surprise that some fall flat while others soar. Craig delivers a performance on par with his others, though he doesn’t quite tap into the raw energy and emotional gravitas found in Casino Royale and Skyfall. Of the new additions, Ana de Armas shines brightest as Paloma, a fresh-faced CIA agent with a whole lot of ambition and very little training, though I wish her screentime extended past a single sequence. Sadly, Malek’s Safin feels like every Bond villain mashed into one, and while Nomi’s presence creates an interesting dilemma for Bond, she isn’t given the space to develop as an individual.

No Time to Die feels plot-heavy where it should have felt emotionally driven. As the cherry on top of Craig’s run, it plays well. On its own, it doesn’t stand toe to toe with the best of the series.

Peregrine V | Regional News

Peregrine V

Directed by: Jonathan Briden

BATS Theatre, 16th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Clearly drawing heavily on cult sci-fi TV shows like Star Trek and Babylon 5, Peregrine V starts with a smart projected introduction to the improvised tale of a rag-tag spaceship crew that we are about to see created.

The all-knowing computer then randomly assigns six actors (Gabrielle Raz-Liebman, Jerome Cousins, Malcolm Morrison, Brendon Bennetts, Emma Maguire, and Liz Butler) their characters. They are of varying species with an expected collection of roles on the ship ranging from the shapeshifting captain and human engineer to the mutant therapist and AI entertainer. Also along for the ride are an avian diplomat and an amphibian mercenary. The actors gamefully embrace these characters, give them names, and set the audience and themselves off on a journey of discovery.

An added element of character is the beautifully animated talking computer (operated by director Jonathan Briden) that always sits on the wall behind the actors and offers droll commentary, jokes, and interaction with the characters, even condemning one of them to death with a coldness reminiscent of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The story that unfolds is more existential than the typical storylines of the TV series this show pays homage to. Some characters are not who they appear to be, causing significant angst among the crew, much of which neatly unfolds in the therapist’s office. My favourite line of the night is “I smell emotions!” yelled by the therapist just before he bounds on stage to analyse another tortured crewmate.

Costuming plays a significant part and each actor selects an appropriate outfit, which some alter to good effect during the course of the narrative to reflect their story arcs. Sound effects (Briden again) and lighting (Bethany Miller) are also used well to give context to what the actors are doing and mark the end of short scenes.

All involved with this NZ Improv Festival show obviously enjoy the sci-fi genre and its tropes and create an irrepressibly fun hour of nerdy entertainment.

The I-Files | Regional News

The I-Files

Directed by: Daniel Allan and Laura Irish

BATS Theatre, 13th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

All power to BATS for pushing ahead with the NZ Improv Festival under COVID Alert Level 2 and making it work. Suitably spooky music from the keyboard of Matt Carroll greeted the masked-up audience as they entered the Random Stage and found their physically distanced seats for this one-off supernatural story.

Those familiar with The X-Files would have immediately recognised the premise of this show with intrepid Agents Smoulder and Gully of the Federal Bureau of Improvisation investigating the unusual disappearance of an unnamed woman who has been drawn into a desert canyon near Cactustown, Arizona by mysterious voices from the past.

Even though some of them are too young to have seen the original TV show, the ensemble cast of Aaron Douglas, Christine Brooks, Ben Jardine, Liz Butler, Trubie Dylan-Smith, Laura Irish, and Daniel Allan cleverly weave a tale worthy of the X-Files scriptwriters using the scant offering of a generic outdoor location from an audience member.

Utilising their enviable physical theatre and characterisation skills, we’re soon introduced to hapless white-trash couple Clarice and Chuck and their parents, the local sheriff and his wannabe deputy Cletis, an 86-year-old librarian, and The Town Psychic. Collectively, they help the agents solve the mystery of the Lost Girls who disappeared on a Hanging Rock-style picnic in 1903 and have now somehow been transformed into a drooling monster from an unearthly, triangle-based realm, accessed through Cactus No. 3, that just wants a family. They even manage to exploit the underlying sexual tension between Mulder and Scully that so titillated X-Files audiences in the 1990s.

The cast are supported by appropriate lighting changes and blackouts that occasionally cut them off or leave them hanging to hilarious effect and Carroll’s background music that neatly highlights the tense finale. Some basic costuming and four red blocks provide just enough setting.

The great joy of improv is that you never see the same show twice and as a one-off festival performance, The I-Files delivered in spades.

Dungeons & Improvisers | Regional News

Dungeons & Improvisers

Directed by: Brendon Bennetts and Ciarán Searle

BATS Theatre, 13th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

Whether you’re a seasoned veteran of the Dungeons & Dragons lore or a newbie looking to find your way in the mystical realms of world building, the Dungeons & Comedians troupe, all the way from Christchurch, is possibly one of the funnest ways to approach the famous fantasy role-playing game. Taking a game already inherently rooted in improv and interactive storymaking, Dungeons & Improvisers brings another layer of fantastical performance and personality to Dungeons & Dragons… and improv!

In this NZ Improv Fest show, DM (Dungeon Master Brendon Bennetts) guides three characters chosen at random through a world of fantasy and adventure, comedic mishaps, and (un)lucky dice rolls. As the DM creates a scene, they employ the help of their ‘imps’: six cast members who contort and transform their bodies to form both inanimate objects and living characters for the three protagonists to interact with on their journey. The audience too is called upon to create obstacles, perils, and plot points, bringing the show to life. Tonight, an old wizard in a red coat named Nimbus the Blue (Wiremu Tuhiwai), a sparky rogue called Bella Doone (Amelia Cartwright), and a comical fighter introduced as Gregnog (Tara Swadi) find themselves facing the amphibious frog prince, usurper of the town of Spawn.

The characters are accompanied by Matt Carroll on the keyboard, who expertly and seamlessly provides atmosphere, anticipation, and aesthetic to every scene. Meanwhile Zoe Higgins masterfully lights the show with a myriad of hues and shades depending on the scenario... or flashes of red for dangerous combat scenes! Both the lighting and the tailored soundscape add a sense of heightened reality to the already very real world unfolding on stage.

Perhaps the best part of the show is the pure, unadulterated imagination on display. Already improvisational in nature, the performance qualities of Dungeons & Dragons truly lend themselves seamlessly to an improv stage show. It’s easy to see why Dungeons & Comedians have sold out shows for the last four years!

Murder on a Boat | Regional News

Murder on a Boat

Directed by: Christine Brooks and Maria Williams

BATS Theatre, 12th Oct 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Walking into BATS Theatre for my first NZ Improv Festival outing, I’m thrilled to be greeted by a staff member with a bright orange sticker. I’m told I can wear it if I want to participate in the show, which I think is a brilliant innovation. Some people are put off improv simply because they don’t want to be singled out. As a Leo, I of course take the sticker and stick it straight on my forehead.

Agatha Christine (Christine Brooks) welcomes us to the Random Stage and sets the scene for Murder on a Boat, where a cast of 10+ scramble to solve the whodunnit aboard the SS Maria Williams. As this is improv, who plays who and who murders who is decided in real-time over one hour of spontaneity and rapid-fire thinking.

Although there are instances of players talking over each other and misinterpreting offers, I thoroughly enjoy Murder on a Boat from start to end. Tightening it up a tad would simply help the great premise and enthusiast cast shine even brighter.

Standout members include Matt Powell, whose detective Sebastian Le Crabbe perhaps isn’t as ready to hand over the reins as he first thought; Marea Colombo, whose charisma as the overworked Beverly nearly steals the show; and Tara Swadi, whose Duchess Fox is killed off far too early. This doesn’t count as a spoiler because it’ll be a different murder victim next time!

Moments of brilliance have me cackling into my mask. One such is a passionate encounter between star-crossed lovers Beverly and the Captain (Daniel Allan), whose impromptu shanty To Sea, ably accompanied by Matt Hutton on keys, is another favourite scene of mine. When there’s a danger of boring ol’ misogyny creeping in, Laura Irish flips the narrative as the ship’s singer Maxine.

As Murder on a Boat comes to a close, I look at my friend and declare it to be “really, really, really good”. I’d love to see it again.

Mr Fungus | Regional News

Mr Fungus

Created by: Fergus Aitken

Directed by: Fraser Hooper

Running at Circa Theatre until 16th Oct

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

New Zealand’s loudest mime takes the stage at Circa Theatre to deliver school holiday fun for kids aged four to 94. This short, snappy, silly show starts with Fergus Aitken’s beloved Mr Fungus enjoying a coffee at home before a radio ad reminds him he’s got to get to Circa… we, the audience, are waiting!

The first half of Mr Fungus sees him riding the bus and battling the elements to make it to the theatre on time and the second is the show itself, where Mr Fungus bursts through the curtain of a light-up box that serves as a stage on the stage (meta set design by Aitken himself).

This structure is easy to follow for the kids. Even with very little dialogue they seem to keep their place and increasingly become more engaged, yelling suggestions like “check your suitcase!” or “the other banana!” or “I don’t know who that cat is!” or “Poppa, that’s where Cinderella was born!” Kids say the darndest things.

Though this isn’t an interactive or improv show so to speak, Mr Fungus responds beautifully to the littlies, giving them their moment in the sun while teasing them just a tad before driving the action forward. It’s clear how much the children love the show, especially when it comes to the addition of colourful props like the flying, farting balloons that make up the spectacular finale.

As a grownup (legally speaking), I’d love to see Aitken ham it up a bit more when things go wrong. For instance, when a juggling ball or a banana is dropped, a slapstick slip gag would satisfy that diabolical desire for disaster that kids have but that I don’t because adults are much more sophisticated than that…

What strikes me the most is Aitken’s gift for physical comedy. The way he embodies multiple characters with a simple gesture or makes his body appear weightless while fighting Wellington’s driving horizontal rain and gale-force winds (highly effective sound design by Aitken and director Fraser Hooper) is simply astonishing. Bravo!