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Reviews

The Slutcracker | Regional News

The Slutcracker

Story by Jean Sergent and Salesi Le’ota

Directed by: Jean Sergent

Running at BATS Theatre until 12th Dec

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

It’s Christmas Eve, and Clyde (Jake Brown) is busy swiping left when his toy soldier (Dryw McArthur) comes to life for a night out on the town. Through the seedy streets of Courtenay Place to the vom-filled buckets of Cuba Street they waltz, hitting gay clubs and espresso joints along the way. This 45-minute high-energy queer ballet celebrates the magic of a Christmas spent with chosen family.

The Slutcracker features very little dialogue, with some lines drowned out by Maxwell Apse’s fantastic arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s original The Nutcracker score. Because of this, I crave more precision from some of the cast. Brigid Costello’s slick yet simplified choreography allows for the fact that not everyone onstage is a professional ballet dancer. Not all the performances are exceptional when it comes to dance alone, which would be a drawback if The Slutcracker was just a ballet – but it’s so much more than that. It’s joyful, sincere storytelling brought to life by passionate performers who put their all into elevating queer voices.

Brown gives 110 percent, delivering frenzied footwork with a Cheshire cat grin planted ear to ear. He’s an immensely loveable protagonist. As his boy toy for the eve, McArthur cuts a striking figure with graceful leaps and pirouettes that make me wonder if he has a dance background. Andrew Paterson takes sass to the max with a tap dance drag routine for the ages. With stellar facials and electric energy throughout, Georgia Kellett reigns over Midnight Espresso as the Sugar Plum Fairy, while Felix Crossley-Pritchard makes a fabulously evil Rat King. Shay Tanirau and Phase flesh out the storyline and help the choreography shine in the ensemble.

Accentuated by the soft, colourful hues of Hāmi Hawkins’ lighting design, Lucas Neal’s festive set lets us know what we’re in for from the get-go: a night of love, laughter, and unbridled joy – just what Christmas should be.   

Mank | Regional News

Mank

(M)

131 Mins

(4 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Right from the word go, when tilted opening titles loft over a black-and-white California sky – almost ironically reading “Netflix International Pictures Presents” – Mank feels as though it was pulled from the rubble of a time capsule planted in the 1930s, grime and gashes intact.

Herman J. Mankiewicz, or Mank (Gary Oldman), is an alcoholic screenwriter with a wit renowned by the top brass of 30s Hollywood, including press tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Following a car crash, a bedridden Mank is asked to pen a script for the debut film of a “young genius from New York”, Orson Welles (Tom Burke).

Of course, the film in question is Citizen Kane, still regarded by many to be the greatest and most influential film ever made. Cited as an early example of auteurism, Welles is often considered the sole mind behind its creation. Mank tells a different story.

Though its narrative doesn’t reach the heights of suspense achieved in other David Fincher films, Mank feels like the cinematic gift we deserve this Christmas. Between the imposing sets, regal costumes, and boisterous personalities on display, it captures the dingy atmosphere of an early noir classic. It shines in black-and-white, photographed by Erik Messerschmidt with plenty of canted callbacks to Citizen Kane.

Mank is about the conflict behind creativity; the contentious debate for authorship between Mank and Welles, Hearst’s fear of public humiliation when it becomes clear that Mank’s script about power, greed, and corruption is based on him. It may not sound fun per se, but Jack Fincher’s endlessly witty script makes the story sing. Mank is a talker, and Oldman places each word perfectly – some slurred beyond comprehension, others overtly articulated to offend that rich prick at the other end of the dining table.

Mank is a lesson in craft and polish. While its narrative is catnip to any movie fan, I can’t help but wonder if casual viewers will find it as fascinating. Its physical beauty is bound to make anyone suspect there is more beneath the surface, and those intrigued by its plot will find new details every time they put it on.

Think Like a Monk | Regional News

Think Like a Monk

Written by: Jay Shetty

HarperCollins

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

Think Like a Monk is so much more than the title suggests. Author Jay Shetty’s words feel authentic and spoken by someone who is walking the talk. He’s lived the regular nine-to-five lifestyle and found it wanting. Think Like a Monk made me sit up and pause, reflect and reimagine life; so much so, I had to read this book chapter by chapter with ample breaks in between, days even, to wholeheartedly digest and ruminate on all the profound things he was saying.

Shetty regales us with tales of becoming a monk, a process where he became gracefully and mindfully aware of anything and everything in his life and the lives of others. I never once felt like this was a clichéd, fanciful, or indulgent plunge into self-help book territory.

He talks of existing in career quadrants where ideally passion and skill collide; the other quadrants are a mixture of when the two don’t collide. I am suddenly acutely aware I have one foot firmly planted in one career quadrant while holding on for dear life to another. Shetty makes you feel as if anyone can live a life less ordinary, simply by being you and tapping into infinite wisdom in a purposeful and achievable way.

“Monks understand that routine frees your mind but the biggest threat to freedom is monotony,” says Shetty. He encourages you to change your lens, to find new things in old routines.

“Plant trees under whose shade you do not plan to sit” – live your life with intent and service.
Shetty concludes his final chapter with a hope that his book will have inspired and perhaps encouraged a fresh start. He has certainly done that.

Think Like a Monk challenged all I thought I knew about the life and purpose of a monk. I had only ever seen what I wanted to see – the robes, the shaven heads, the seemingly purposeless chants, and the celibate solitary lifestyle. Changing your lens to think more like a monk is just the start.

This Farming Life: Five Generations on a New Zealand Farm  | Regional News

This Farming Life: Five Generations on a New Zealand Farm

Written by: Tim Saunders

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Ayla Akin

This Farming Life speaks the warm truth about family, connection, and heritage on a New Zealand farm. Tim Saunders begins by describing his early years where he resisted farm life, preferring instead to pursue adventures throughout NZ and abroad. His explorations fail to keep him away as he returns home, finally accepting his commitment to the land.

Whilst the work described on the farm is tough and relentless, Saunders’ words feel effortless. The stories of Saunders’ mother and father are beautiful. I felt like I could see Saunders smiling as he relives his fondest memories. More importantly (as someone obsessed with comedy), the book is bound together by humour. As I progressed through the chapters, I realised that Saunders’ manner of describing events is likely a product of his charming and quirky father. A slight shift in font and you are suddenly transported to a childhood memory; one being a hilarious account of Saunders at his first sheep auction. I cracked up loudly – lucky I was reading at home!

Interestingly, the book addresses well-known farming issues, and the chapters are lightly laced with politics. Many of these situations leave you frustrated and are necessary for an authentic understanding of agriculture. Somehow, Saunders avoids a deep dive into his feelings, which I believe could have further enhanced the emotive dimensions of the book. There are deliberate mentions of climate change throughout that are accompanied with his desire, along with his vegetarian wife’s desire, to do what is best for the planet. Despite these ‘soft’ offerings, he does not skirt the gory realities of farm life.

The chapters are divided conveniently into seasons. As someone who picked up the book knowing zero about farming, it made the read even more educational. You do not need to be a farming nut to enjoy this book. This Farming Life is an honest, loving, and easy read that will leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy by the end!

Scorpions in Stilettos | Regional News

Scorpions in Stilettos

Written by: Hinemura Ellison & Ted Hughes

Bach Doctor Press

Reviewed by: Anne Taylor

This is the third book in a trilogy by Waikanae-based publishing duo Darin Dance and Virginia Innes-Jones, writing here under pseudonyms. It follows Clara James, an impulsive go-getter piecing together how past traumatic events have derailed her life and escaping corporate life in Wellington – a life she’s just exploded by having an affair with a married judge.

I was looking forward to some light relief at this point in the year but my read got off to a bad start with a missing comma in the dedication – the serious kind that messes with meaning. Unfortunately, glaring typos and grammar glitches are frequent, and this was a major barrier for me. The dialogue is at times stilted as it tells the reader key information. I only have a sketchy mental picture of Clara and none of her friends (strange in the romance genre?), but I know she carries a “hobo bag” because the authors told me multiple times. Clara’s mother and boss are simplistic villains, paper cut outs for Clara to sling off at. There were some funny moments but probably not in the way the authors hoped, as with the poems lifted straight out of Clara’s journal or when she hears the news of the possibly fatal (for her friends) earthquake, then a few pages later is shooting the breeze over bubbles with a dishy flight attendant. At one point it looks as if Clara is going to bust open a shady property deal and/or solve a murder, but these subplots trail off into oblivion.

On the positive side, the Wellington setting, complete with Astoria Café, Ministry offices, and train commutes to the coast is refreshing, and Clara’s challenges are relatable and passionately portrayed. On balance, the raw, ‘heart-on-sleeve’ style is one of the strengths. Like its main character, this book has pace and chutzpah, and the authors have storytelling talent, zipping us from Wellington to Kathmandu and Sweden, but the standards of crafting I’d hope to find in any genre, including romance, are not there.

Michael Houstoun: An evening of Bach and Beethoven | Regional News

Michael Houstoun: An evening of Bach and Beethoven

Presented by: Chamber Music New Zealand

Michael Fowler Centre, 21st Nov 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Michael Houstoun’s audience rose to their feet to acclaim him at the conclusion of his concert. It was a fitting gesture for the man near the end of an outstanding career and for the performer of this programme of Bach and Beethoven, both of whom Houstoun reports to be his music touchstones.

How clever the programming was: a programme to stop your heart even before you hear the performance. Bach’s Partita No. 4 in D Major and Busoni’s arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 were followed in the second half by the Adagio Sostenuto movement from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and the entire Waldstein Sonata. In the programme notes, Houstoun described the D Major Partita and the Waldstein as works of majesty, celebration, and joy. Between those works, the Chaconne and the Adagio Sostenuto touched tragedy and sorrow. Houstoun wrote of the Adagio Sostenuto as “an unsurpassed statement of sublime sadness.”

What is striking about Houstoun’s performance style is the directness of the delivery of the music to the audience. His very entry to the stage is understated. There are no histrionics in his playing. He conveys his deep engagement with and understanding of the music through his hands alone.

Highlights of this concert for me included the way in which the structures of the Partita movements were elucidated by the wonderful clarity of his playing. Also of note were the beautiful balance of melody and adornment in the Chaconne and his commanding control of dynamics and intensity in the Hammerklavier movement. My enjoyment of the concert grew through to the enveloping beauty of the Waldstein Sonata. The first movement was convincingly energetic but relaxed and fluid. The second created a profound and brooding stillness. In the final movement, Houstoun’s judgments of colour and intensity seemed inevitable and perfect and his amazing agility thrilled.

Spectacular | Regional News

Spectacular

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Gemma New

Michael Fowler Centre, 20th Nov 2020

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

What a treat! One of my favourite pieces of all time, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and a rarity in these COVID times, a new conductor in front of a live audience. Gemma New had her debut with the NZSO online in August but made up for any lost ground in this performance almost from the moment she stepped onto the podium. It was quickly evident she was totally immersed in the music and her relationship with the orchestra. There is a terrible workplace joke about using interpretive dance to command attention and communicate important messages to your audience. Gemma New has set a very high bar as far as I am concerned. Her physicality was joyful, engaging, expressive, energetic, definitely dancelike, and brought out the absolute best in the orchestra.

The Fantasia is based on a psalm Tallis had set to music during the Renaissance period. Church music would have been played on the organ at the time. The two physically separated string orchestras (just nine players in Orchestra Two) and a solo quartet sounded uncannily like an organ. The strings of the NZSO are excellent and played beautifully as always, and there should be special congratulations to the retiring cellist Robert Ibell and bass player Nicholas Sandle.

Stephen de Pledge, known as an advocate for contemporary music, played Anthony Ritchie’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with energy and feeling and gave a bonus performance of Edvard Grieg’s Nocturne. Symphony No. 5 by Jean Sibelius is traditional in form with strong theatrical moments, thoroughly enjoyed by conductor, orchestra, and audience alike.

One of the unique pleasures of a live performance is the combination of sound and action. While there was plenty to look at in the playing, it was an absolute delight to watch Gemma New bringing an extra dimension to the experience – her highly professional and personal interpretive dance.

Ladies in Black | Regional News

Ladies in Black

Written by: Madeleine St John

Directed by: Sandy Brewer

Gryphon Theatre, 18th Nov 2020

Reviewed by: Petra Shotwell

I’ve always been a lover of musicals, so of course I had to attend Ladies in Black. Musical theatre and light-hearted feminism? I’m beyond excited.

Set in 1950s Sydney, the story follows Lisa (Tara Canton) as she starts her first job at a clothing store, Goodes. Through the relatable phenomenon of workplace bonding, Lisa learns about independence, self-growth, and the power of sisterhood.

Directed by Sandy Brewer, the Ladies in Black team should be incredibly proud. Each department has clearly worked together cohesively to create a world, completely transforming the theatre.

The stage crew silhouettes rearrange various black boxes which, paired with a projector screen, effectively represent a unique space. While simplistic, the set design (Brewer) is incredibly effective, complementing both the lighting (Angela Wei), and the performers themselves. The movement of the cast in the space consistently feels natural and smooth (choreography by Clinton Meneses). From simple dresses to glamorous “model gowns”, the costume design (Polly Crone) is very aesthetically pleasing. This, matched with the hair and make-up (Crone, Kate Ghent, Tyler Dentice), works well to establish the time period and enhance each character’s personality.

Each cast member is a unique asset to the story arc and musical numbers. Several performers have multiple characters to play, and it’s entertaining to watch their dispositions change with each role. A stand out for me is Canton. Complementing her effectively awkward and wholesome portrayal of Lisa, Canton’s vocals sound like they were made deliberately for musical theatre.

The highlight of the show is one of the many incredible musical numbers (sound design by Don Blackmore and Steve Morrison, musical direction by Sue Windsor). Brewer, portraying the mother, is accompanied by her daughters (Megan Neill, Carys Tidy, Sophie Russell) to deliver an incredible rendition of He’s a Bastard. The tune itself is hilarious, and paired with the performers’ dead-pan expressions, it’s easily a crowd favourite.

While the script is somewhat outdated, this production of Ladies in Black accentuates the strong feminist themes with pertinent irony, compassion, and straight up fun.

Cinderella – The Pantomime | Regional News

Cinderella – The Pantomime

Written by: Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford

Directed by: Susan Wilson

Running at Circa Theatre until 20th Dec 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Cinderella (Natasha McAllister) lives on Mount Victoria with her friend Buttons the rat (Simon Leary) and her wicked step siblings, real estate agents Tommy (Kathleen Burns) and Bayley (Jonathan Morgan). Meanwhile in the palace, Prince Ashley of the Blooming Fields (Jack Buchanan) must find a queen. Encouraged by his advisor Dandini (Bronwyn Turei), a real stickler for tradition, Prince Ashley announces a royal ball. After a meet cute with a mysterious stranger over a pumpkin, Cinderella scores a ticket to the ball. But with only rags to wear, and only a rat to accompany her, she’s going to need a little help. Enter Fairy Godmother Rosie Bubble (Gavin Rutherford).

The trouble is, Rosie’s still on her restricted magic licence.

Cinderella is my fourth Circa pantomime and might be my favourite to date, although that’s a hard call to make. I’ve always found the annual affair to be the perfect escape, filled with the kind of joy that makes you forget all your troubles and cares. Rutherford’s Dame is always fantastic, but this time he plays the role with strop and sass, making for a more subdued, supremely entertaining performance that brings balance to the otherwise manically exuberant production. His squabbling with Leary has me in stitches.

So too does Burns’ literal caricature of an evil stepbrother. Her physical comedy is outrageously good, especially when coupled with Morgan’s deliciously nasty, sneering stepsister. Buchanan plays Bloomfield – sorry, I mean the Prince – with infinite amounts of chill, countered by Leary’s boundless energy and stellar comedic timing. McAllister’s portrayal of Cinderella is peppy yet poised, while Turei’s powerhouse vocals bring the house down.

Tying it all together under the witty, watchful eye of Susan Wilson is Michael Nicholas Williams’ masterful musical direction. I’m still humming his arrangements the next day, my grin splitting ear to ear as I remember the fabulous frivolity of the night before.