Written by: James Valcq and Fred Alley
Directed by: Jen Goddard
Gryphon Theatre, 23rd Mar 2022
Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus
With the New Zealand premiere of The Spitfire Grill, Wellington Repertory Theatre has successfully brought to the stage a boutique 1970s-set American musical and made it relevant for a COVID-impacted 2022 Kiwi audience.
Percy (Sara Douglas) is freed from jail and heads to the small town of Gilead, Wisconsin (nothing to do with The Handmaid’s Tale) on little more than the promise of beautiful autumn leaves. There she meets the local Sheriff (Alex Robertson) and falls into a job at the only eating place in town, the Spitfire Grill, run by the spiky Hannah (Gillian Boyes), and strikes up a friendship with Hannah’s daughter-in-law Shelby (Natalie Gay). Frequenting the grill daily are Shelby’s misogynistic husband Caleb (Leon Beaton) and town gossip Effy (Amy Bradshaw). Lurking in the shadows is a mysterious visitor (Carl Johnstone) whose identity is the culmination of a steady peeling back of the secrets and tragedies of this small community that has become isolated and abandoned through economic depression.
As the three leading women, Douglas, Gay, and Boyes are strong, engaging, and polished. Their harmonies are spot on and one of the highlights of this intimate but weighty production. Ultimately, this is a story of women taking responsibility for their own empowerment and these three deliver that mission convincingly. Beaton’s excellent and expressive voice gives dimension to the otherwise unlikeable Caleb and Bradshaw’s snarky comments and facial expressions bring lightness to the heavy themes. Robertson’s Sherriff is sweet and appealing.
Balancing the sound from the band with the singers is always a challenge at the Gryphon, but Thomas Perry’s design gets it right. Angela Wei’s lighting design is excellent and Oliver Webber’s operation timed perfectly to highlight each scene in the small space and support the lyrics. The drab and frumpy clothing (Wendy Howard) fits the era and themes appropriately, and Jen Goddard’s unfussy direction works well.
This slick production of a gem of a musical is well worth a watch.