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Reviews

East/West: A Symphonic Celebration  | Regional News

East/West: A Symphonic Celebration

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Brent Stewart

The Opera House, 20th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Wellington’s usual concertgoers were not much in evidence at this concert: a pity since the occasion was part of an initiative to introduce Chinese performing arts to audiences around the world. Members of the Wellington Chinese community made up most of the audience.

The programme included Pōkarekare Ana and an early work, Drysdale Overture, by New Zealander Douglas Lilburn, alongside five Chinese compositions.

Orchestra Wellington, conducted by the admirable Brent Stewart, was its usual excellent self, but the warmth of the relationship with its usual audience was missing, reminding me of how important that ingredient is in live performance.

Jian Liu, of the New Zealand School of Music – Te Kōkī and with an international reputation for performance, was the soloist in the Yellow River Piano Concerto. Madame Mao herself directed the collaboration of several musicians to arrange an earlier work to create this concerto. The work’s chequered history probably contributes to it not being the most subtle piece of music ever written.  It was great to watch, however, as Liu made seemingly easy work of the runs, trills, glissandi, and thunderous chords that the work demands.

Soprano Joanna Foote sang an appealing version of Pōkarekare Ana and was joined by tenor Bo Jiang in The Song of Yangtze River by Shiguang Wang to great applause from the audience.

Wang Xilin’s The Torch Festival and Bao Yuankai’s Chinese Sights and Sounds showed how Chinese composers have absorbed western idioms and applied them to Chinese subjects, creating descriptive works that incorporate eastern elements. Gift, composed for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra by Tian Zhou, is a more sophisticated work.  Zhou has written that he “wanted to create a reminder of the joy of music making, and along the way explore [his] own musical identity after 18 years of living abroad.” Musical identity was the stuff of this concert.

Krishnan’s Dairy | Regional News

Krishnan’s Dairy

Written by: Jacob Rajan

Directed by: Justin Lewis

Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, 17th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

I have been lucky enough to see four Indian Ink productions in my time. I loved each one, and each increased my desire to see Krishnan’s Dairy, Jacob Rajan’s breakout solo work that helped launched the prolific theatre company 25 years ago.

With this year’s TAHI New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance, I finally got the chance to meet Gobi and Zina Krishnan, a married couple from India who run a corner dairy here in Aotearoa. Rajan plays both characters, as well as Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal to house the tomb of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Krishnan’s Dairy entwines the two stories to show that epic love isn’t only found in epic places. Equally, it nestles in the small stuff: the silly squabbles, the safety of home, and the little shops that stock far too many Minties.

Rajan uses half-masks to glide effortlessly between characters. I say glide because even though he often changes masks in full view of the audience, with the exception of the stunning reveal of Mumtaz Mahal (costume design by John Verryt, mask creation by Justin Lewis), blink and you’ll miss it. In the scenes where the transitions are made a deliberate focal point (a hilarious rapid-fire dialogue between the Krishnans for instance), none of the illusion is suspended, none of the magic broken. In fact, it’s all the more marvellous to see the mechanics at play. Gifted doesn’t come close to describing Rajan or director Justin Lewis, who shapes the building blocks of Krishnan’s Dairy with the hands of a master craftsman.

Verryt’s set design shines in a special interaction with the lighting design (original by Helen Todd, development by Cathy Knowsley) that helps us see beyond the veil. Rajan and Conrad Wedde’s compositions (performed by Rajan and Adam Ogle) include a sweet song that ties it all together in a satisfying instance of ring composition. All of these elements take us even further into the magical realm. The result is an unforgettable, inimitable work of theatre that deserves all the acclaim it’s received – and then some.

See How They Run  | Regional News

See How They Run

(PG-13)

98 mins

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Harry Bartle

The latest whodunit to hit theatres is Tom George’s See How They Run. Following in the footsteps of the popular 2019 Knives Out, the film adds comedy to the mystery, making for a playful well-devised puzzle.

In 1950s London, plans for a movie version of Agatha Christie’s smash-hit play The Mousetrap come to an abrupt halt after the director is murdered. When a tired inspector (Sam Rockwell) and an eager rookie constable (Saoirse Ronan) take on the case, they find themselves thrown into a puzzling whodunit within the glamorous world of theatre, investigating the mysterious homicide at their own peril.

See How They Run’s opening sequence sets the scene perfectly. Led by the voice of Academy Award winner Adrien Brody, we get a taste of the postcard mid-20th century London setting and meet a range of suspicious characters before a sudden murder gets us armchair detectives in the mood to try and solve the mystery.

Rockwell and Ronan’s chemistry is brilliant. Their banter is both awkward and funny with plenty of running gags and Ronan in particular steals the show with her warm, upbeat performance. Although the narrative and final twist may have fallen flat for more demanding whodunit viewers, I thoroughly enjoyed the final reveal. Yes, this is partly because all of my many guesses during the film were wrong! However, looking back, George and writer Mark Chappell dropped enough subtle clues to make picking the killer possible.

The fictional story is tied in with some true elements. For those who don’t know, The Mousetrap is a real play, and the film even bases some characters on members from the original cast such as Richard Attenborough and Sheila Sim. This was a unique element and only added to a plot that pokes fun at the classic works of the genre. See How They Run also combines fun flashbacks, engaging editing, a suspenseful score (Daniel Pemberton), and colourful aesthetics to provide the audience with enough whodunit constants to keep them involved in the mystery.

Told with fun energy by a fantastic cast, See How They Run may be slightly forgettable once the credits roll, but it is still an hour and a half well spent.  

Leviathan | Regional News

Leviathan

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 17th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

John Psathas’ Leviathan – Percussion Concerto is a work commissioned by the UN-backed Pastoral Project for Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year. Psathas was required to reflect Beethoven’s Spring Symphony and promote action on climate change and the environment. The first movement portrays what Psathas called “the human race’s out of control race to disaster”, with the orchestra providing a broad ominous soundscape against which the percussion solo gives a sense of frenetic activity. In contrast, the second movement, which delicately integrates themes from Beethoven’s symphony, has a sense of eyes-wide-open wonder at peaceful nature. The mood was created through the orchestra’s strings and woodwind, the soloist’s use of glockenspiel and vibraphone, and the innovation of amplifying the sounds of water in a large bowl being slapped and poured by the percussionist. The third movement evoked pollution, recycling, and sustainability by the use of a plastic water bottle used as a rattle and a drum. The fourth movement focused on a more positive future: it had a feeling of purpose and resolve absent from the other movements.

We experienced a virtuosic and athletic tour de force from outstanding German soloist Alexej Gerassimez. This was an excellent performance from the conductor, orchestra, and soloist: a memory to be treasured.

The orchestra also played Wagner’s Lohengrin: Prelude to Act 1 and Schumann’s Symphony No 2. The Prelude is an uplifting piece of romantic writing, aethereal but noble. Schumann’s symphony is considerably darker reflecting his difficulties with mental illness. Just as Psathas’ work referenced Beethoven, Schumann’s symphony referenced his hero composer Bach and the so-called father of the symphony, Haydn. It is clear that Taddei loves Schumann. He gave a music lesson to the audience by having the orchestra illustrate aspects of the composition as he talked. Taddei has a wonderful rapport with his audience. We Wellingtonians are very lucky.

Gag Reflex: A Scandalous Solo Show  | Regional News

Gag Reflex: A Scandalous Solo Show

Written by: Rachel Atlas

Directed by: Sabrina Martin

BATS Theatre, 16th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Finlay Langelaan

The atmosphere in the theatre is intoxicating as I take my seat for Gag Reflex, on as part of the TAHI New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance. Rachel Atlas takes centre stage, dressed to impress, and it’s absolute chaos from then on.

From New York to London, from pornography to family heartbreak, Atlas leads us on a wild ride through her life in any number of flabbergasting professions. She goes through more costume changes than I can count, all designed by Go Go Amy and all flawless. The scenography team of Bekky Boyce and Erika Takahashi have also done a fabulous job with a simple yet effective stage setting.

The piece was produced by George Fowler, and that unmistakable Hugo Grrrl vibe is everywhere. However, this is Atlas’ story, and she claims the space as her own. Every audience member is on the edge of their seat, uproarious in their applause and laughter. Atlas is a born performer and welcome addition to the Wellington theatre scene.

Intertwined into death-defying circus acts and astonishing tales of sex work is a heartfelt message. Powerfully feminist and unapologetically honest, Gag Reflex is a tale of empowerment and autonomy told by a woman who has lived an incredibly full life. Atlas takes her own scandalous exploits and turns them on their head, seizing worth and control from those who would withhold them.

The show is by no means perfect. A number of knives miss their mark (non-fatally) and an unfortunate audio cue mishap steals part of the monologue, but Atlas takes it all in her stride. I question the necessity of ‘The Hand’, but it seems to garner the audience's favour almost as much as The Gimp. I leave the performance energised, elated, and with a strange sense of conspiracy; as though I’ve learnt truths I wasn’t supposed to. Though certainly not for the faint of heart, Gag Reflex is an absolute triumph.

Colour Me Cecily | Regional News

Colour Me Cecily

Written by: Bea Lee-Smith

Directed by: Hilary Norris

BATS Theatre, 15th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Upper Hutt in the 1980s is the newfound home of Cecily, a recent divorcee from a cheating husband in London and star of this joyous production in the TAHI New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance. Writer Bea Lee-Smith gives a powerhouse performance not only as the adorable Cecily but also as a host of other colourful characters that Cecily meets as she casts off on her own.

Arriving at local pub The Embers, where white wine from a box is the height of sophistication, Cecily meets an eclectic group of women intent on fulfilling their dreams. One wants to travel, another to publish a children’s book, and a third to open her own Italian restaurant. With their encouragement, Cecily joins a watercolour class to rekindle her childhood love of art and from there enters the bright and exciting world of style consultancy with Colour Me Beautiful.

Lee-Smith has performed Colour Me Cecily before and it shows. Constantly switching posture and accent with ease, Lee-Smith takes us on a journey of discovery while always letting us know where we are and who we’re with. Just a small table and its crocheted tablecloth, a chair, a handbag, and four coloured scarves representing the seasons keep her company. The rest is left to our imaginations.

This minimalism is an excellent choice as it allows Lee-Smith’s impressive performance skills to shine. With Hilary Norris’ careful direction and some choice snatches of 80s pop (Golden Brown and White Wedding included), the world of the Hutt in the decade that taste forgot is successfully conjured up, even for those who have never experienced the joy of snacking on Cheds and reduced cream and onion dip while sipping cask wine and ‘having your colours done’.

A delight from beginning to end, Colour Me Cecily is a warm, humorous, and touching tale of personal empowerment at a time when even educated women still had little to look forward to apart from wifely duties and motherhood.

The Changing Shed | Regional News

The Changing Shed

Produced by: Katrina Chandra

Written by: Michael Metzger

BATS Theatre, 15th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Finlay Langelaan

Michael Metzger's award-winning PhD performance piece The Changing Shed deserves every iota of praise it has received thus far. Metzger is effortlessly hilarious and instantly relatable to all as he takes us through the trials and tribulations of a queer farmer's son.

From the moment we enter the space, I am entranced. Metzger limbers up as we take our seats then lays out the groundwork, both literally and metaphorically, setting down masking tape crosses to form a map of the Otago area. This wonderfully engrossing technique humanises our protagonist and grounds the story simultaneously. Before long, we are deep into marathon training and chicken raising, seeing both past and present alongside one another.

Metzger's magnetic stage presence and easy charm make him an absolute pleasure to watch. He cracks wise, treats us to a remarkably impressive flower arranging demonstration, and makes regular use of the on-stage treadmill. All the while, he paints a picture of his childhood, of all the things that push him to run. It is a marvellous performance that tugs on the heartstrings of the rightfully packed house.

My only complaint is that there wasn’t more. The piece felt like it was building to something that never quite came, a finale to round the performance out. With such a complex character portrayed by such a talented performer, I would have happily eaten up another 20 minutes of anecdotes and musings.

On as part of the TAHI New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance, the piece deals with a number of topical issues, primarily bullying and homophobia, and it does so with class and finesse every time. It manages to be hopeful without being preachy, condemning without being hateful. Even the references to assault are somehow tasteful. The Changing Shed takes a snapshot of 1970s Aotearoa and holds it up to the modern day. Some things are still awfully familiar, but the show offers a message of unity and growth. The last thing I would call it is ‘timid’.

Title and Deed | Regional News

Title and Deed

Written by: Will Eno

Directed by: Jeff Kingsford-Brown

Circa Theatre, 14th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Theatre veteran Steven Ray has chosen an extraordinary and challenging piece in Title and Deed to perform as part of the TAHI New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance. Although written in 2012, Will Eno’s meandering prose poem is remarkably pertinent to the existential crisis we’ve all been living through for the last two and a half years. The COVID pandemic has made many of us think at some point about the nature of life and death, and what it is to be human. That self-examination is captured beautifully and lyrically in Title and Deed, which is an ultimately uplifting ode to the weirdness of being us.

The skill in Eno’s writing is that it shows us ourselves from a highly quirky outside perspective, that of an unnamed traveller who has recently arrived here with nothing other than a white suit and a bag containing a long stick and an empty box. Is he an alien or is he human? Even by the end of his monologue, I’m not sure. But that doesn’t matter. He tells us plenty about the nature of his unspecified homeland. It is a place of perpetually rumbling blue skies, reverse weddings, and terrible Saturdays where the main exports are sarcasm and uric acid. Despite the traveller’s claim that it’s a weak and dying place, I still have an urge to go there.

Ray’s subtle and engaging performance, Jeff Kingsford-Brown’s unfussy direction, and Niamh Campbell-Ward’s soft lighting design let this strange text comfortably breathe. Thanks to the frequent non sequiturs, Ray occasionally calls “Where am I now?” to the lighting box while staying fully in character. This is a bold and wise choice to avoid the awkward pauses of an actor reaching for his lines in a first-time performance and keeps the quiet energy flowing.

The best theatre makes you think about it well after you’ve left the auditorium and that’s certainly the case with Title and Deed. Long may its blue skies rumble.

Agents Provocateurs  | Regional News

Agents Provocateurs

Written by: Jo Marsh

Directed by: Sameena Zehra

BATS Theatre, 14th Sep 2022

Reviewed by: Finlay Langelaan

Loud, proud, and disavowed; Agents Provocateurs tells the story of half a dozen female spies throughout history, spanning some 400 years. Each tale of bravery and brutality is accompanied by a pop song parody, with snippets of Jo Marsh’s life threading a narrative together. Though this entire TAHI New Zealand Festival of Solo Performance piece is delivered with fierce enthusiasm, I am left feeling like we’ve barely scratched the surface.

The set design I applaud. The stage is set as an archive room out of time, with file boxes scattered everywhere and a sprout of cardboard tubes. Dynamic lighting takes us from scene to scene, from a melodramatic performance realm and back to Marsh’s direct address. These transitions are slick and effective, demonstrating the show's high production value. I’m only slightly perturbed by the sudden appearance of a pair of puppets, which are equal parts amusing and confusing.

The format is established as Marsh takes us through Mata Hari’s journey during WWI. We get the key points of each spy's life, but never much more than that. I feel we miss out on juicy details and the nuance and intrigue that are so inherent to the appeal of spy stories. The songs are fun, the rewriting clever in some places and verging on cringeworthy in others. I’m swept along by Marsh’s passion for her craft and her insatiable fervour as she regales us with each woman's life story.

Throughout the performance, the audience is bombarded with feminist and antifascist sentiments. Marsh reminds us that trans folk have existed for centuries, that women have been fighting out of the spotlight forever, that Nazis are… y’know, bad. While these are all obviously excellent messages, they’re nothing I don’t already know, and Marsh seems hesitant to delve deeper into her subject matter. These are powerful characters and I’d love to learn more about them. Next time I hope to see a more aggressive message from such an powerhouse performer.