Written by: Justin Lewis and Jacob Rajan
Directed by: Justin Lewis
Soundings Theatre, Te Papa, 2nd Aug 2023
Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson
Local choir Note Bene has turned up to Soundings Theatre without really knowing why. Indian Ink Theatre Company told them to learn a bunch of specific songs for a play, and when they arrive, they’re shown onstage and cast as office workers. Finding their way through the network of brightly coloured cubicles (set design by John Verryt), they sit down at their new desks and try to look busy until a cue from musical director Josh Clark means they can finally burst into song.
What a concept! Dirty Work is set in a modern-day office, where Joy (Catherine Yates) is cleaning in the wee hours before overzealous office manager Neil (Justin Rogers) arrives ahead of schedule. Next, Zara (Tessa Rao) walks in with the whole team (Nota Bene, with singers from other Wellington choirs) in tow. But Joy still hasn’t finished cleaning, all the computers are missing, and the company director (Jacob Rajan in a knockout audio performance) has just Zoomed in with a to-do list that’s way above Neil’s paygrade.
Remarkably, Nota Bene looks perfectly at ease – you can hardly tell they’ve got no clue what’s going on. Incorporating physical theatre into his performance, Rogers expertly portrays a subtle shift in his character’s perspective in the final scenes. Rao navigates a similar character arc with aptitude and aplomb, while Yates brings the house down as the lovable, no-nonsense Joy.
You could certainly expect chaos incarnate from this play. But I leave the theatre marvelling at how cohesive it all is, how Rajan and Justin Lewis have entwined Dirty Work’s themes so seamlessly throughout, even how natural its absurdist elements feel (due credit here to director Lewis for conducting the action as masterfully as Clark conducts Nota Bene). This play doesn’t spoon-feed its audience pathos. Even with a choir, it doesn’t use music to tell you how to feel. It doesn’t hit you on the nose with its underlying message. With self-love as its beating heart, it’s an entertaining but tender exploration of finding your place, your worth, and your identity amidst the relentless grind of the nine to five.