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Double Dipping: Queen & Friend and The Mechanical | Regional News

Double Dipping: Queen & Friend and The Mechanical

Produced by: New Zealand Improv Festival

BATS Theatre, 11th Oct 2023

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

Two shows for the price of one. What could be better this New Zealand Improv Festival? With just 30 minutes each, Queen & Friend and The Mechanical both manage to pull off a fully formed narrative with multiple characters based on suggestions from an excitable audience.

Using the Slido app, Queen & Friend (Imogen Behan-Willett and Mark Grimes), assisted by tech master Tristram Domican, use the audience’s selection of an inspiring location as their starting point. It’s Gore, South Island. Using clear mime skills, they quickly establish that we’re in Gore’s lone, nameless pub with its only two regular customers. Soon a third character, that of the publican, is introduced. Then the audience gets to pick whose story we follow next, choose-your-own-adventure style. The publican is the popular favourite and we’re off home to his wife, endless schnitzel-making, career angst, and emotionally stunted son.

Creating three characters per scene gives Queen & Friend its distinctiveness. Behan-Willett and Grimes deftly flit between their roles using simple physical moves that are easy to follow and fun to watch, alongside a speedily developed and entertaining storyline.

Next up is The Mechanical (Rik Brown), otherwise known as Tom Snout, the one performer left after his A Midsummer Night’s Dream play-within-a-play castmates have deserted. It soon becomes clear that Brown’s improv skills are a cut above the usual when he invites the audience to give him eight mostly random words that he will weave into a story. What follows – The Tale of the Gross Plumber – is a masterpiece of on-the-spot Shakespearean cleverness of which the Bard himself would have been proud. Weaving in multiple characters and three storylines (the fixing of a leak in the castle kitchen, a homosexual near-encounter on a snow slope, and an onion addiction), Brown uses existentialist mock-Elizabethan language and brilliant physical theatre throughout to take us on a complex and well-rounded story arc. As always with improv, I’m in awe of his instant creativity.

Ruthless! The Musical | Regional News

Ruthless! The Musical

Presented by: Kauri Theatre Company

Directed by: Bonita Edwards

Gryphon Theatre, 11th Oct 2023

Reviewed by: Zac Fitzgibbon

Oh, how I would kill to watch this show again. With music by Marvin Laird and book and lyrics by Joel Paley, Ruthless! is a hilarious musical about a daughter who would do literally anything to get the lead role. Maybe even murder...

With such a talented, professional cast that commits wholeheartedly to the performance, this show is bound to make you laugh. Every quip corrals the audience into collective laughter.

One of the most hilarious moments in the show is Lita Encore’s (Jane Keller) humorous number I Hate Musicals. It’s nice to watch a fellow theatre critic singing on stage. However, I shudder to think how ruthless Lita Encore would be if she ever got the chance to review this show, because Ruthless! deserves all the praise it can get.

I thoroughly love musical director Sarah Lineham’s portrayal of Judy Denmark. Her performance puts me in mind of Rachel Bloom and Jane Krakowski. It is extremely satisfying to see her subtly portray Judy’s character development through the show. Lineham has excellent control of her voice. In saying that, all the performers do, with each musical number a thrill to listen to. It is furthermore impressive that there are no mics used in the show and each performer is able to project their voice so skilfully.  

Addy Stone as Tina is bursting with talent and certainly has a future on the stage (just don’t cast her as an understudy… seriously). I would love to see the other Tinas; I have no doubt they are equally as talented and wish them the best for the season. It’s great to see young actors supporting the cast.

The set (Rob Romijn) is a perfect backdrop for the show. The two different sets between acts cleverly represent the characters’ development. Costumes managed by Cathy Lee epitomise each of the characters and give them even more depth.

This side-splitting show about mother-daughter relationships and the ambitions that can get in the way is not to be missed. You would be ruthless to skip out on this wickedly funny musical.

Here’s a Thing! | Regional News

Here’s a Thing!

Presented by: New Zealand Improv Festival

BATS Theatre, 10th Oct 2023

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Here’s a Thing! presents a hand-picked cast of directors from across the New Zealand Improv Festival to make improvised mayhem, magic, and madness together onstage.

The great thing about reviewing improv is that it’s not possible for me to drop any spoilers. It’s made up on the spot and no two shows can ever be the same. If it’s done by sharp, funny, agile performers who work as a team, it can be one of the best and most bizarre things you’ll ever see. A real communal experience, where everything is an inside joke between the cast and the audience.

That’s just what we have here. Together with Matt Powell and Jim Fishwick as hosts, performers Christine Brooks, Katherine Weaver, Bec Stubbing, Matt Armstrong, and Noelle Greenwood bring us the love story of a frog and a caterpillar, the fatal rivalry of a barbershop and a barbershop quartet, the jams of a heavy metal band called Clockwork Banana, Goldilocks and the great Porridgegate scandal, the journey of a blunt arrow across the French-English Channel into a king’s right eye in 1063, and other Things. Each director possesses an innate sense of comedic timing, cutting almost every scene at the perfect moment. Not too short, not too long, just right.

With Matt Hutton creating a live soundtrack on keys and D’ Woods as lighting operator, the most jaw-dropping scene sees Powell and Fishwick invent and perform a Shakespearean ballad about space exploration in real-time. Another highlight for me is when Brooks prompts the audience for a process that happens in nature and I call out “Photosynthesis!” without realising I don’t actually know what it means. When asked to elaborate, I stutter “Sun!” and “Plants!” before a kindly audience member comes to my rescue. What follows is exactly what you’d expect from a photosynthesis prompt: a scene set in a world where everything is good and right, where lattes no longer cost $15 and the patriarchy is dead. Ahh, the joys of improv.  

Here’s a thing: if you want to laugh till your belly hurts, watch wizards weave worlds out of thin air, and be a part of something special, inimitable, then catch as many NZIF shows as you can.

The China Tightrope | Regional News

The China Tightrope

Written by: Sam Sachdeva

Allen & Unwin

Reviewed by: Kerry Lee

“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” A quote originally attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte has now taken on greater meaning in 2023.

Starting in 1972 when the New Zealand Government and the China Communist Party (CCP) formally opened diplomatic ties, our country has had to increasingly step carefully between extracting the best possible outcomes from this relationship without incurring the wrath of an increasingly powerful entity.

A curious glance at some news stories might give you a rather jaded view of China and how it interacts with the world at large. However, nothing is ever that simple, and in fact, there are some historical reasons that help to explain what’s happening here.

For me, the most interesting part of Sam Sachdeva’s The China Tightrope was finding out about China’s ‘century of shame’, a period in their history where they felt they were at the mercy of much larger countries. That so-called shame may play a pivotal role in the country’s modern-day mindset – the idea that they will no longer take a back seat to anyone.

Sachdeva’s background in journalism shines through. He does not take sides, nor is he pointing fingers, and there are no villains. Instead, The China Tightrope gives readers the facts, letting them know there’s more to this relationship than what we are told.

As China gains more power and comes into more conflict with others as a result of that power, a better understanding of the country and its government is essential. Think of this book as a brief field guide on the relationship that China and New Zealand enjoy in the 21st century.

If you see it, I implore you to pick it up. While our relationship politics are anything but simple, The China Tightrope is a surprisingly quick and easy read that will give you a much better understanding of this new world we find ourselves in. Essential reading.

Middle Youth | Regional News

Middle Youth

Written by: Morgan Bach

Te Herenga Waka University Press

Reviewed by: Margaret Austin

Reading Middle Youth by Morgan Bach has me wondering at the life experiences of a poet concerned with, yet bleakly cynical about, the fate of Earth and all upon it. My wondering is probably naïve: Bach’s views as expressed here are backed by sad facts we are being forced to face.

My reading, therefore, is accompanied by head shakes of reluctant agreement. As always, recognition of a personal kind strikes a chord. Moderate Fantasy Threat is an example. “Sifting my skin through the millions of men / afloat in the city” she writes in a poem referencing London. She is “prostrated at the altar of boredom” as “sex has become / an administrative task”. A movie of her life, she says, would receive the same rating as the title of this poem.

Date line also recalls London, and it’s a bleak recall. The city features Dreadnought Walk, sexual assaults in a Wapping alleyway and at Canary Wharf. World weariness has become a theme. “Another date, another line / You found yourself crossing / You walk through churches you don’t believe in / with your body / you don’t believe in.” I’m feeling for the writer, whether she intends it or not.

It’s no surprise then to read cosmos, a lengthy five-part poem, and find the writer has been reading theories about the universe’s end. “In Iceland, people have gathered / to watch fire pouring from a fissure”. Such stark imagery is all the more striking because it’s rooted in reality. And I cheer when the sometimes-obscure nature of the imagery that characterises this collection is relieved by this quote: “We know our luck / is borrowed / from our future selves”.

Yet more stark is the eponymous Middle Youth, in which our writer, almost 40, feels “I can never say to my friends with newborns / I am afraid”.

Morgan Bach does us a huge service with this frank expression of her vision. We need more of such unvarnished truth-telling.

Game On: Glitched  | Regional News

Game On: Glitched

Written by: Emily Snape

EK Books

Reviewed by: Jo Lucre

On the back cover of Game On: Glitched, author Emily Snape says she finds lots of inspiration for her books from her three children. It certainly shows. Their influence is apparent in the absurdity of some of the storylines, like solving riddles while painstakingly dodging woolly mammoths and other fabulously out-there scenarios that will pique a child’s interest and appeal to their youthful humour. In Glitched, Snape continues her winning formula from the first book in the Game On series, Shrinkle.

Finding a discarded phone in the recycling bin might be a bonus to most kids, but for brothers Liam and Max, when it comes from the recycling bin of their blue-haired eccentric neighbour and suspected ex-CIA employee, Ms McBoob, then it has the potential to lead them into all sorts of trouble... as they soon find out.

The fun begins when they discover a mysterious app, appropriately named Glitched. Like a red rag to a bull, the time-travelling app – which will see the boys unceremoniously thrown into a world of different time periods where dangers are rife – is too hard to resist.

The app levels (chapters) get more and more adsurd as they are thrust into competing time periods of the Middle Ages, walking amongst the Romans, deciphering Latin, and hoping not to have to use latrinas or have their heads bitten off by a ravenous Neovenator (a genus of carcharodontosaurian theropod dinosaur, according to Wikipedia). Solving riddles will be the brothers’ only redemption and finding a way out will be fraught with all manner of icky things.

It’s the history lesson the boys never knew they needed, and a nail-biting race against the clock to get back home before their phone battery dies. Game On: Glitched is action-packed and not for the faint-hearted.

The 10-year-old critic of the house was most impressed, especially with two brothers going rogue, where landing in a Roman arena at the mercy of wild boars is just one of the many terrifying feats to escape.

Signs of Life | Regional News

Signs of Life

Written by: Amy Head

Te Herenga Waka University Press

Reviewed by: Miya Dawson

Signs of Life is a short but impactful modern novel that dips into the lives of inhabitants of Christchurch following the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes. Our protagonist Flick leaves university for a job that seems to be going nowhere while her ‘mostly ex’ is thriving. Her mother Louise has been successful financially but struggles to connect with the rest of her family. Tony is declared dead and has to go through a complex administration process to prove he is standing right there in Work and Income. It is essentially a series of observant character portraits that are frank and realistic but steer clear of unnecessary trauma baiting in the face of disaster.

The book is summed up best by its final line from Amy Head’s acknowledgements. She recognises the people in Ōtautahi Christchurch “who overcame so much simply to continue with their lives”. For all the setbacks the characters experience, they come out exactly where they were before. Flick quits her studies at the beginning and in the final chapter is only starting to consider returning. This means there isn’t much of a traditional narrative arc or character development, so for fans of tightly plotted, exciting mystery novels, this may not be the story for you. But for the refreshing experience of seeing fictional people living not as parts of a plot but like you and those around you, through events that New Zealanders have been affected by, I highly recommend giving this a read.

Flick describes a poster that hangs on her wall at work of artist Yves Klein leaping from a building: “She liked the image because it arrested her. To avoid seeing a sprawl of fractured limbs on the concrete below, she had to remain suspended in that moment, in the air with him.” To read this book is to remain suspended in so many little moments, those that are life-changing and those that represent an average Tuesday, and understand that they are all part of what makes us human.

A Haunting in Venice | Regional News

A Haunting in Venice


103 minutes

(4 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Alessia Belsito-Riera

If you’re looking for the perfect spooky-season flick, you’ve found it. A Haunting in Venice ventures into all kinds of dark, dank corners, scary séances, and haunted happenings.

Detective Poirot has retired. He lives in Venice, unbothered – his bodyguard, ex-police officer Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio), sees to that. When his friend, mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) turns up on his doorstep, he reluctantly attends a séance with her in the dilapidated – and supposedly cursed – palazzo of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly). Rowena has employed a medium (Michelle Yeoh) to commune with her dead daughter. What ensues is a twisted, tragic, and titillating tale of terror and tears.

Kenneth Branagh reprises his role as director, producer, and the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot for a third time in A Haunting in Venice. Based on British author Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, the film follows Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, though personally, I think this one is the best so far.

Engaging Hollywood whodunnit horrors are few and far between these days. When done right, they are the perfect balance of fun and profundity. A Haunting in Venice is particularly introspective, with writer Michael Green’s screenplay both clever and affecting. Though there are a few jump scares, what is truly haunting is the trauma the characters grapple with, each one wrestling different demons.

Though I enjoyed A Haunting in Venice immensely, I do have a bit of a bone to pick – and not with the book, which was set in England. Why is it that when movies are set in a ‘foreign’ country, very little energy is dedicated to accuracy? For example, Italy doesn’t celebrate Halloween and Venice is famous for Carnevale, which is a similar vibe. Also, only one character is Italian, a supporting role, despite the story taking place in Italy. Italian names, words, and pronunciations are, more often than not, incorrect. This is a movie with a budget of $60 million, made by some of the brightest minds in the industry. In future, I hope to see major productions doing better research, but for that to happen we’ll all have to hold them more accountable.

The Importance of Being Earnest | Regional News

The Importance of Being Earnest

Written by: Oscar Wilde

Directed by: Jonathan Price

Circa Theatre, 7th Oct 2023

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

The challenge in producing any classic play that potential audience members may have seen before, perhaps more than once, is to do something fresh and different. Circa Theatre’s latest take on this well-known Victorian script is wild (pardon the pun) but it works wonderfully.

Fully embracing the duplicity of its denizens, Jonathan Price’s production twists tradition by cross-casting two of its main characters, Algernon Moncrieff and Gwendolen Fairfax. Isobel MacKinnon makes a lively and likeable Algie and her physical, sisterly joshing with Jack Worthing (Andrew Paterson) nails the core of their relationship long before they know they are family. Ryan Carter makes the character of Gwendolen sharply snobbish and gives her instant friendship with Cecily Cardew (a charming Dawn Cheong) a whole new and contemporary dynamic.

Irene Wood as Lady Bracknell is trousered and terrifying with her crystal-topped cane, and her impeccable comic timing gets some of the biggest laughs of the night. Peter Hambleton’s unctuous and overly sexed Reverend Chasuble is another delight as he excessively enunciates and makes the word ‘pagan’ sound deliciously dirty. Anne Chamberlain provides entertaining support as the uptight Miss Prism and as the man himself, Paterson gives joyous energy to the Bunburying Jack/Ernest.

Mention must also go to a scene-stealing Rebecca Parker, who double-dips as underlings Lane and Merriman and drives the best scene change I’ve ever watched as she sweeps aside the cascade of pink roses that litter the set and launches into the most unexpected song.

The startlingly effective production design (Meg Rollandi) is as effervescent as the acting with bright colours, lush fabrics, and a three-quarters, intimate space peppered with frequently relocated chairs. It allows the actors to move with ease and constantly break the fourth wall to suck the audience into their world.

This Earnest is surprisingly sassy, sexy, sunny, spirited, and just a bit silly as it grabs Wilde’s warm wit and waves it like a rainbow flag at a Pride parade.