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Reviews

SUPER, NATURAL | Regional News

SUPER, NATURAL

Presented by: Discotheque

Te Auaha, 6th Aug 2021

Reviewed by: Leah Maclean

Discotheque (DTQ) are an independent Wellington-based dance company who have been bringing chaotic energy to the stage since 2016. Their works to date are steeped in irreverence, experimentation, and a pure love for the act and idea of dance. Their latest creation SUPER, NATURAL is no exception.

Co-directed by Holly Newsome and Elekis Poblete-Teirney, SUPER, NATURAL is a charming 50-minute romp of sci-fi abstraction, disco, and theatrical effect. The performance relies heavily on experimentation with light, sound, and texture, all of which ultimately lend well to the intended otherworldly atmosphere. It is also carried by six female dancers who ooze charisma and seem to relish and thrive in its quirky realm of existence.

Setting a cinematic, extraterrestrial scene, the performance opens with an ominous sequence of shadow play, robotic voiceover, and plenty of dry ice. The dancers are revealed wearing various iterations of the same green dress. They move in perfect, inhuman unison like aliens trying to fit into a human nightclub or a 30-year-old trying to vibe with surrounding 18-year-olds (no shade intended, I am in the former demographic). It doesn’t take long for the dancers to shed their discipline and spiral into a wild frenzy of leaps and bounds, unveiling their inner party animal.

Adding to the hectic energy, the soundtrack is a layered, pulsing mash-up of disco, talk show fragments, and poppy anthems. Then there is a series of colourful costume changes, from abstract swimsuits to glittery 70s body suits. Disco comes in hard and strong with the dancers imitating the pointed fingers and bouncing hips of the decade. And what would a homage to disco be without a few disembodied disco balls?

SUPER, NATURAL is a genuinely fun and absurd piece of work. DTQ are trying to create a new chapter of accessible dance and I think they are well on their way to achieving that by not taking themselves too seriously. I am excited by their development and am eager to see what weird and wonderful place they end up next.

Red! | Regional News

Red!

Composed by Lucy Mulgan

Directed by: Jaqueline Coats, with musical direction from Brent Stewart

Michael Fowler Centre, 4th Aug 2021

Reviewed by: Ruth Corkill

Red! is a modern operatic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. The heart of the production is a 400-strong children’s chorus. The children dominate the stage, and their singing, gestures, sound effects, and contributions as part of the creative team bring dynamism to the production.

Clearly an effort has been made to modernise and sanitise the story. The classic red hood becomes a red hoodie, the picnic basket is a backpack, and Red’s mother texts Granny to let her know that Red is on her way. The principles, Natasha Te Rupe Wilson (soprano), Robert Tucker (baritone), and Catrin Johnsson (mezzo soprano), wear jeans and sneakers. Presumably the intention is to make the story more relatable, but in the process we lose the fantasy and opulence of traditional opera.

The strongest section comes when Robert Tucker’s suave and unnerving Wolfie intercepts Red (Wilson), overcomes her initial reluctance to talk with him, and persuades her to linger in the bush. Wilson and Tucker are marvellous together, and Red’s intuitive fear of Wolfie is perfectly expressed in the score. The compelling and modern message here is that children should listen to their own intuition when dealing with abusive and manipulative characters.

But the show becomes more panto than opera once Wolfie arrives at Granny’s house, where Granny (Johnsson) challenges him to a boxing match. Both the children’s chorus and the audience enjoy the chaos, booing at Wolfie and cheering for Granny. Red sees through Wolfie’s grandmother disguise immediately, and we sadly miss out on the disquieting moment in the traditional version “oh Grandmama, what big ears you have”. Instead of eating people, Wolfie is reduced to being simply ridiculous. At the end he wags his tail and asks for carrot cake. 

Narrative choices aside, the score is wonderful and moves deftly between playful and serious. The accompaniment by Orchestra Wellington is superb. Parts of a section workshopped by the children falter but contain interesting ideas. Each of the principles give strong performances, with Wilson demonstrating particularly impressive vocal agility. Most importantly of course, children both on stage and in the audience are completely engrossed.

Coming Home in the Dark | Regional News

Coming Home in the Dark

(R16)

93 Mins

(4 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

Words like ‘suspenseful’ and ‘nail-biter’ are often thrown around casually, but when was the last time a thriller truly sent a tidal wave of terror washing over you? Coming Home in the Dark is an ever-building symphony of dread informed by strong characters, a gripping story, and an intimate camera.

High school teacher Alan ‘Hoaggie’ Hoaganraad (Erik Thomson) and his wife Jill (Miriama McDowell) are enjoying a picnic with their two boys when they are interrupted by a pair of drifters, Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu). Soon their idyllic day turns into a nightmare road trip, and what Hoaggie at first believes to be a random encounter may actually be rooted in the sins of his long-buried past.

In his feature debut, director and co-writer James Ashcroft shows he is perfectly willing to test an audience’s limits. At times he and co-writer Eli Kent play the game as you’d expect, but other moments will send unexpected shockwaves through the crowd, including a particularly ballsy beat that sets a brutal tone early on. With hints of stylistic prowess from the book of De Palma and sensibilities reminiscent of the Coens’ darker entries, this is as confident a debut as any director has made in recent memory and an invigorating addition to Aotearoa’s feature filmmaking roster.

Much of the movie takes place inside a car, but thanks to Ashcroft’s gift for visual suspense and committed performances all-round, it never stalls. Thomson screams everyman, and his grounded portrayal of the frightened, guilt-stricken family man contrasts magnificently with Gillies’ sinister turn. He makes the villainous Mandrake a ghostly figure, one who seems to move with the wind and commit excruciatingly unpredictable acts, much in the vein of Anton Chigurh (No Country for Old Men). Despite this, we can’t help but admire his intelligence, wit, and charm.

Coming Home in the Dark is filled with risks, which makes it stand out as an assuredly fresh thriller. Who is right and who is wrong is up for debate, but what isn’t is the hold this film will undoubtedly have on those who see it.

Winding Up | Regional News

Winding Up

Written by: Sir Roger Hall

Directed by: Susan Wilson

Running at Circa Theatre until 28th Aug 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

As Ginette McDonald pointed out to me at halftime, I (a 20-something) am not quite the target demographic for Winding Up, the latest play from Sir Roger Hall about 70-somethings Barry (Peter Hayden) and Gen (McDonald herself). Seeing as the two-hander picks up on the lives of the central couple from Conjugal Rites, which Hall wrote before I was born, I’m inclined to agree. But I didn’t need context to root for Barry and Gen in this tender and touching chapter of their 50-year marriage.

Winding Up is set in the retired couple’s upmarket apartment while other happenings – like family dramas and flirtations with nosy neighbours – occur offstage. Barry and Gen often bicker and tease each other but their love shines through above all else, accentuated by a script that jumps from sharp to sassy to sweet in a heartbeat. Moments that make me fall in love with them in turn include a hilariously awkward (attempted) love-making scene and a gentle slow dance in which the full gamut of emotions runs across McDonald’s face, beautifully lit by Marcus McShane.

Hayden’s portrayal of a kind man with lots of zest (and patience!) is wonderfully offset by McDonald’s nuanced but no-nonsense Gen. Both veteran actors, their chemistry sparkles and sizzles as five decades of marriage are expressed in the touch of a hand, an exasperated eye roll, the tucking in of a blanket.

With the couple contemplating going on a cruise, I initially hope the setting will shift from the apartment to a boat but end up enjoying the slice-of-life perspective from their living room. Plus, seeing the pictures of their holiday afterwards (set and AV design by Lisa Maule) is a lovely touch. Together, Maule’s sleek set, Sheila Horton’s sophisticated costume design, and Michael Nicholas Williams’ gorgeous classical music design (particularly effective during the transitions, some of which are a tad too long) show a well-off couple in years made golden not just by age but by love.  

The Yellow Wallpaper | Regional News

The Yellow Wallpaper

Presented by: Yellow Cat Collective

Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, 29th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

I expect you, like me, have never wondered what happens when a wallpaper realises it is being watched. However, this fascinating “three-course meal” of domestic history, spoken word, and sensory dance experience seeks to answer that very question.

On arrival at Katherine Mansfield House, audience members have 15 minutes to enjoy the hors d’oeuvres, the lovingly recreated rooms of the home of one of New Zealand’s most famous writers. We’re told that rooms in the house have been reclad in facsimiles of the original wallpaper that neatly sets the scene for what’s to come and helps make this venue an inspired choice.

Once settled in an upstairs room, the petite audience of 10 is treated to the sumptuous main course, a reading from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 19th-century short story, The Yellow Wallpaper. This is the tale of an unnamed narrator who is prescribed bed rest in an old country estate and eventually grows fond of her cage-like room and its garish wallpaper. The lush and poetic descriptions of the patterns and shapes on the walls that surround the narrator are beautifully read by Liz Butler, who wears a suitably yellow dress, and conjure unexpectedly creative imagery from something as mundane as a wall covering.

Dessert is taken in a different room and, like all good sweet treats, it tickles the senses with its scent of spicy incense, hypnotic music (Aaron Dupuis), and soft, yellow light (Matilde Vadseth Furholm). Two dancers (Abi Sucsy and Ellen Butler) employ sensuous and sinuous movement – often in harmony, occasionally in conflict, sometimes together, sometimes apart – to bring the spirit of the yellow wallpaper alive.

With creative direction from Butler and Andrew Ford, Yellow Cat Collective have pulled off the seemingly impossible – making wallpaper interesting. Having sampled their tasting plate of creativity, I’m left hungry for the full buffet of storytelling they presented at this year’s Fringe Festival to describe “the sprawling waves of optic horror” that so enthralled the unnamed narrator.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer | Regional News

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Written by: Mike Hudson

Directed by: Lynn Coory

Cochran Hall, 22nd Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is based on the beloved 1876 novel by Mark Twain – which, ashamedly, I haven’t read! I do however know of Huckleberry Finn (Alfie Byrne), who gets up to all sorts of mischief (I mean adventures) with his good friend Tom Sawyer (Thomas Neville).

Set in the 1840s, this play focuses on Tom’s perspective and upbringing in a small town in Missouri, where director Lynn Coory notes “children’s currency was a dead rat and a brass doorknob and where children roamed free from breakfast to supper”. From grave robbing to buried treasure to miraculous resurrections, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer certainly is one great big adventure.

This Khandallah Arts Theatre production stars a number of youngsters and seasoned actors working as one. Neville, Byrne, and Josh Harford as Joe Harper share a wonderful chemistry, especially when bellowing around a campfire together. All of the kids do very well, with Ira Crampton deserving a hearty clap for his energy and enthusiasm as Ben. In the grownup category, Hayden Rogers makes an excellent villain of Buckshot Joe and as his would-be victim Widow Douglas, Marj Lawson’s lively performance is a favourite of mine.

The world building on display here is fantastic, with audiences transported to simpler times thanks to clever costuming (wardrobe collator Theresa Donnelly), a charming old-world suburbia set (Stephanie Woodman), and scene-setting music from talented guitarist Jack Dryden. Idyllic projections by designer Brian Scurfield work in harmony with the lighting design of chief technician Chris Collie-Holmes to establish different locales – from a cemetery to a cave to a haunted house – so the audience never loses their place. The thundering rain outside certainly added mystique to the spooky scenes!

Overall this Khandallah Arts Theatre production has great heart. I’d recommend more music through some of the transitions, as the energy does dip while the audience waits for the next scene to start in silence. A bit more pace and we’ll have a firecracker on our hands!

The Justice of Bunny King | Regional News

The Justice of Bunny King

(M)

101 Mins

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

The Justice of Bunny King is not always mesmerising, but its characters certainly are. Though its story loses steam, saved by a left-field surprise of a third act, its messages ring true, and I wager most will leave the theatre with a slightly altered perspective. 

Bunny King (Essie Davis) is a squeegee bandit with a goal: to save enough money to regain custody and house her two kids. After promising her youngest a birthday party during a visit, Bunny will do anything to keep her word, despite having no job, no home, and no help from social services. Things are only complicated further when her niece Tonyah (Thomasin McKenzie) reaches out for help.

The film rides or dies on the shoulders of Bunny, an undoubtedly demanding role. She must at once be warm and compassionate, frustrated and cool, but Davis refuses to let her become superficial. Bunny is imperfect, with shades of light and dark. She makes mistakes, often lashing out at those who wrong her in immature ways. But these elements boil down to a supremely human character, one who we’ve all encountered and maybe now feel we can relate to a little more.

Front to back, the cast make the story feel visceral. Even minor characters, such as Government Family Services caseworker Trish (Tanea Heke), make an impact. This is largely aided by Gaysorn Thavat’s focused direction and Sophie Henderson’s concise screenplay.

It’s clear that the collaborators felt a kinship towards Bunny, but at times the story she is in runs out of gas. The film takes an unexpected turn in the final act, which will work for some and alienate others. For me, it worked, bringing scope, suspense, and surprise to a tale I thought had tapped out.

Bunny and Tonyah struggle to be heard, supported, and empathised with, feelings we’ve all had. The film’s anti-patriarchy message is one many will raise a fist to, but I foresee The Justice of Bunny King being a love-it-or-hate-it experience for most.

Tap Head | Regional News

Tap Head

Written by: Barnie Duncan

Performed by Barnie Duncan

Directed by: Katy Maudlin

BATS Theatre, 13th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Tanya Piejus

With Tap Head, comedian Barnie Duncan has achieved what his mum Robyn, to whom this show is dedicated, always claimed was possible – that you can feel more empathy for an inanimate object than a human being.

The inanimate object in this case is a lonely cold tap who works in a public toilet in Waitangi Park, desperately trying to engage with those who pass through his sterile world. By day, he stares at the smooth mound that resides where the hot tap should be and daydreams about taking his non-existent partner in plumbing to the park to play table tennis. By night, he tries out his vaguely crude and pathetic stand-up routine at comedy clubs.

Also plying his trade on the comedy circuit is Barnie Juancan who, with his freshly shaved knees, uses surreal dad jokes to provide multiple excuses for his literal lateness in starting the show, interspersed with salsa dances. Between digs at Jair Bolsonaro and an Uber ride with a German wasp, he brings a whole new meaning to turning on a tap.

Duncan’s greatest of many performance skills is an aptitude for mime and physical comedy that renders Tap Head a fully formed character with deep feelings. He even bares his buttocks in a sad shower scene that provokes an audible “Awww” from the opening night audience. Sharply contrasting this pathos with the arrogance of Juancan, he leaves us in no doubt as to who we’re rooting for.

Aiding Duncan’s performance is a precise and clever combination of lights (Kaitlyn Johnson), sound and music (Daniel Nixon), and animated projections (Caiden Jacobson). BATS’ Co-Pro model that allows more pack-in time clearly worked to this show’s advantage as these technical elements are outstanding.

It’s only since coming home from seven years in Melbourne that Duncan has found a truly appreciative audience for his Monty Python-esque humour. With Tap Head, he has done his mum proud.

The Lion King | Regional News

The Lion King

Music and lyrics by Elton John and Tim Rice

Book by Roger Allers and Irene Mecchi

Directed by: Julie Taymor

Spark Arena, 10th Jul 2021

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

A diehard The Lion King fan, I walk into Spark Arena barely containing my excitement, only to have my sky-high expectations met and exceeded by the very first note. Two minutes into Circle of Life and I’m already crying. Those tears flow five more times as I feel The Lion King transport me back to my childhood with stage magic the likes of which I’ve never seen before. The sad scenes aren’t what get me but the sheer spectacle, the unfathomable artistry on display. As I say to my husband Dean after the show, I’ve never cried at how good something is before, and yet here we are.

To even begin to comprehend why The Lion King is so good, we must start with Julie Taymor. Not only the director but the costumer and the co-designer of mask and puppetry with Michael Curry, Taymor’s vision is monumental. From ginormous giraffes to mischievous meerkats, “from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope”, her designs capture the vast scope of the animal kingdom and are brought to life by world-class choreographer Garth Fagan, who emboldens a cast painted by hair and makeup designer Michael Ward to truly embody each animal. The stunning masks of Scar (the standout, terrifically terrible Antony Lawrence) and Mufasa (the gallant Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile) feel as if they move, even breathe, on their own.

Two highlights for me are moments not on film: a powerful and poignant scene in which Rafiki (the extraordinary Futhi Mhlongo), Young Nala (brilliance from Filia Te), and Sarabi (Lungile Khambule, the picture of mourning) grieve the loss of Mufasa and Simba; and the massive number He Lives in You, which is still stuck in my head!

While I can’t do The Lion King justice with words, and so few words at that, I’ll do my darndest by saying out of the hundreds of shows I’ve been to, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.