The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People
Written by: Rachel McAlpine
Directed by: Robin Payne
Circa Theatre, 26th Nov 2023
Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus
The Secret Lives of Extremely Old People tagline reads, “Is life worth living after 90? Ask the experts!” and this production does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s ‘close-work theatre’ in which Wellington author Rachel McAlpine has devised the script by interviewing a selection of local nonagenarians and compiling five fictional characters from their stories.
These characters are still-in-love couple Peggy (Annie Ruth) and Tom (Lloyd Scott), enjoying a stately existence in a retirement home after a life of poverty and struggle. Alongside them is Māori kuia, Puti (Grace Hoete), who was led to believe her ethnicity was Portuguese and only discovered her tangata whenua heritage later in life. Gilbert (Gary Young) is a successful man who hates the injustice he sees in the world, and Zinnia (Anna O’Brien) is a lively musician who grew up trying to deny her sexual attraction to other women.
To the accompaniment of freshly made cups of tea from kettles located at the back of the stage, the five actors (who range in age from 43 to 81, they tell us) relate the stories of these carefully composed people from the comfort of chairs, occasionally wandering the stage to emphasise a point. That’s as sophisticated as Robin Payne’s direction gets and, along with simple spotlighting (Alexander R Dickson), is all that’s needed to enable the audience to fully engage with the direct-address style of storytelling.
The characters traverse topics that are predictable enough – health issues, sex, political and social change, losing a child – but also prejudice and privilege in ways that are not so predictable. They’re expressed in a manner that can only come from the mouths of real people; “Thank you, God, for one more bonk” gets the biggest laugh.
Beautifully bookending the show is video testimony from three doyens of the Circa stage: Desmond Kelly, Kate Harcourt, and Sunny Amey.
Is life worth living after 90? Based on this production, the answer is emphatically yes!