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John Prine | Regional News

John Prine

Shed 6, 2nd Mar 2019

Reviewed by: Colin Morris

I recall, not that long ago, that an opening act was given a short sharp shift. “Bring on the main act” was the call. Thanks to better behaviour these days, we’re prepared to give the newer artists some leeway. This was the case with Tyler Childers, a 27-year-old out from Kentucky. With a style similar to Sturgill Simpson (who produced Childer’s 2017 album) and Jason Isbell, there are promising signs for this newbie.

Partly a trip down memory lane and partly tracks from the new album Tree of Forgiveness, Prine proves to be the perfect host with his Southern charm, a mixture of anecdotes, and funny asides of marriage and family. It’s Prine at his most revealing, a chink in the curtain, the musing of a weary troubadour and one that simply delights. We should acknowledge what a wonderful backing band Prine brought along: bass player Dave Jacques, keyboardist Fats Kaplin, guitarist Jason Wilber, and drummer of over 40 years, Brian Owenings.

Two bouts of cancer have burnished Prine’s voice with the patina of a rusty oil can. Shaky and wistful, it never fails to invite you into his world.

I’m hoping that former Prime Minister Helen Clark was in the audience, as she is on record saying that Sam Stone is her favourite track. It’s Prine at his most sober as he recounts the tale of an injured Vietnam vet returning home hooked on morphine. The line “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where the money goes” never fails to chill. But all the songs in this two-hour set – Caravan of Fools, Crazy Arms, and Boulder to Birmingham – were given due referential treatment

The best song of the night was undoubtedly Hello in There, its bowed bass line perfect. Received with pin-dropping silence, it was followed by rapturous applause from the full house.

Part spoken, part sung, When I Get To Heaven is a crowd-stopper and the perfect, hilarious end to an evening in which all the planets aligned.

Full Scale | Regional News

Full Scale

Created by: Isobel MacKinnon and Meg Rollandi

Written by: Isobel MacKinnon

BATS Theatre, 26th Feb 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

A woman (Isobel MacKinnon) recounts stories from her childhood. It’s one peppered with ornaments, much to the dismay of her mother, who is called “the opposite of a hoarder.” The narrative is divided into two distinct sections: memories from the woman’s past are interspersed with delightful anecdotes about the ornaments she has collected.

When recounting memories of her mother, MacKinnon walks to a table stocked with her collection. She uses a GoPro to film the ornaments, which are attributed to characters that then re-enact her stories. While projecting the live footage onto the back wall of the stage is clever, this segment needs work.

Most of the time, it’s clear which ornament represents which character, but there are a number of flimsy links and figures that seem surplus to the action. When a character leaves a story, MacKinnon removes the ornament from the table and places it in three strips of dim light on the floor (lighting design by Jennifer Lal). Some of these moments make perfect sense, but others don’t. The script could be adjusted to indicate what is happening when the surplus characters are removed, and overall, I’d like to see more methodical and concise action in this segment.

It’s at the table that MacKinnon often fumbles with the script, but she recovers from these instances with courage and grace. These scenes also feel like a lost opportunity in terms of their design. Lighting on the table itself and better camera angles would create striking stage pictures. Fully committing to the hazy, blue, shadowy lighting scheme used would help it achieve its desired otherworldly effect. As it stands, the scheme feels dull and almost accidental.

It is during the anecdotal sections that both the work and MacKinnon’s performance really shine. The script is beautiful and hilarious, the story is heart-wrenching and poignant, and MacKinnon is a gifted actor.

With refinement and a more considered design approach, Full Scale would hit its mark and then some.

Side by Side by Sondheim | Regional News

Side by Side by Sondheim

Directed by: Emma Kinane

Running at Circa Theatre until 22nd Mar 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Side by Side by Sondheim honours the great Stephen Sondheim with a total of 55 songs by the man himself – 27 of which are performed as a medley, assures Matthew Pike. The composer and lyricist behind such celebrated musicals as Into the Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd, and the witty wordsmith responsible for hits like Tonight and I Feel Pretty, Sondheim is arguably the greatest American musical theatre artist around today. Dazzling, glamorous, elegant, and brimming with astronomical talent, this show feels every bit the fitting tribute.

With musical director Michael Nicholas Williams and Colin Taylor on a grand piano apiece, Side by Side by Sondheim was always going to be – well, grand. But these musicians are more than just impressive. They play flawlessly, capturing the spirit of Sondheim with doses of humour and gall, especially during interactions with singers Pike, Julie O’Brien, and Sarah Lineham. Williams and O’Brien’s raunchy rendition of I Never Do Anything Twice is one of my show highlights.

With a powerful and inimitable voice that gets deep into your bones, O’Brien is striking. She’s hilarious too; just watch her waddle and effectively rap during Getting Married Today.

Lineham surprises me with an unexpected vigour and a phenomenal range in You Gotta Get A Gimmick. Prior to this piece, her voice is delicate, soft, and lovely, tinkling above the action. She follows up the ‘gimmick’ (hint: there’s a trumpet involved), with an affecting aria. Losing My Mind is the most emotionally resonant moment of the show for me.

Every moment Pike is on stage seems effortless. He glides through the musical with ease and consistency. His voice is pure and unforced, acting as an anchor to O’Brien and Lineham’s. It reaches their heights when he sings in falsetto for a fleeting moment that catches my breath in my chest.

Side by Side by Sondheim is a great excuse to get dressed up, pop the bubbly, and enjoy a wonderful night out at the theatre.

On the Basis of Sex | Regional News

On the Basis of Sex


120 Mins

(4 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Annabella Gamboni

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the most famous civil servants in the world. She sits on the US Supreme Court at the age of 85, and is best-known for her work demolishing legislation that discriminates on gender. Her story was always going to be incredible, but in the hands of director Mimi Leder, it becomes even more compelling. On the Basis of Sex at first seems straightforward, even glossy, but excels when it delves into the trickier stuff.

The biopic follows Ruth (Felicity Jones) from her time at Harvard Law School as one of its first-ever female students through to the case that changed everything for her – and America’s women. Along the way, we nestle into her spectacularly functional, progressive marriage with Marty (Armie Hammer), and see first-hand the kind of discrimination that Ruth and her kin were up against.

Despite its long runtime, On the Basis of Sex held me in its thrall. Sure, it was funny when the young Ruth humiliates the sexist, condescending Dean of Harvard Law (Sam Waterston), but the film is its most cutting and fresh when it skewers so-called ‘allies’ of the feminist movement. After graduating, top student Ruth can’t get a job anywhere in New York. One interview seems promising; the interviewing partner seems sympathetic to her plight – but he can’t hire her! What would the wives say? Smarmy ACLU lawyer Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) is for equal treatment for all people under the law, apparently. But he refuses to treat Ruth as his intellectual equal, and after one particular dressing-down even the audience doubts she can win.

These thematic through-lines work so well because they stem from complex social and cultural issues that women and non-binary people are still wading through today. It effectively conveys to the viewer that while ‘the Notorious RBG’ did a lot of important work for gender equality, we’ve still got a way to go. On the Basis of Sex is inspiring, but it never loses sight of the fact that social change is a lot of hard work.

Twelfth Night | Regional News

Twelfth Night

Written by: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Anastasia Matteini-Roberts

BATS Theatre, 12th Feb 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

I have seen many adaptations of Twelfth Night, but never one set in a drag club. With high hopes for this 6 Degrees Festival show from the Masters students of the MFA theatre programme at Victoria University of Wellington, I walked through the doors of the BATS Random Stage straight into a rainbow dream. My expectations were met and exceeded by this bright and buoyant production.

The story of Twelfth Night is well told. Siblings Viola (the poised Rebekah Adams) and Sebastian (the gentle Finnian Nacey) are shipwrecked and, both believing the other to be dead, scarper off in different directions. Viola disguises herself as the boy Cesario and enters the service of Duke Orsino (a charming and innocent performance from Simon Davies). The Duke sends his new manservant to profess his love for Olivia (the exquisitely elegant Charli Gartrell), becoming confused by his seemingly homosexual feelings for Cesario in the process. But Olivia falls in love with Cesario too. Viola’s got game.

Chaos ensues, spurred on by drunkard Sir Toby (the show-stopping genius Brianne Kerr), Maria (a-star-has-been-born Nick Erasmuson, performing beautifully in drag), and Fabiana (the energetic Ashleigh Yates), who manipulate everyone around them with surprising agility for people who drink so much. Bearing the brunt of the nasty tricks are Malvolio (the impassioned, yellow-stockings-clad Max Nunes-Cesar) and Sir Andrew (Finnian McCauley delivers the perfect level of silly here). The dancing, singing fool (she-may-as-well-be-Prince-she’s-so-great Ariadne Baltazar) watches all, while Sebastian’s love interest Antonio (the frenzied, fiery Alfredo Gonzalez) pines, and gets arrested. The representation in this production was refreshingly effortless, though I wish more could have been made of this great romance at the end.

Each cast member allowed the next their moment in the spotlight, and what moments they were. Stunning costumes added glitz and glam, and, oh, the dance numbers! Erasmuson’s choreography with Harriet Foster’s sound design? C’est magnifique.

The inclusion of an interval would have made this a near-perfect two hours of theatre.

Madiba the Musical | Regional News

Madiba the Musical

Written by: Jean-Pierre Hadida

Directed by: Pierre-Yves Duchesne and Dennis Watkins

Opera House, 7th Feb 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Madiba the Musical is a celebration of the great Nelson Mandela (Perci Moeketsi). Using stage techniques such as projection and narration (David Denis), it traverses many years of his life rapidly, jumping from his time as a freedom fighter and lawyer in the 1950s to his incarceration in the 1960s in the blink of an eye. While Mandela serves life in prison, the production shifts its focus to young activist Sam (Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji) and artist Will (Barry Conrad).

What first must be said about Madiba is the exceptional vocal talent of the cast. While each outstanding voice blended beautifully with the next, Ruva Ngwenya’s (playing Winne Mandela) smooth, husky timbre had me on the edge of my seat. Johan Nus’ choreography too made a lasting impression, a slow-motion protest scene remaining with me long after the curtain had fallen. The interfusion of traditional and contemporary dance felt elegantly reflective of the past and present, echoing the multigenerational voice expressed in Madiba.

Vibrant, explosive, and joyful, Madiba is every bit the celebration it declares itself. Whilst I found it a pleasure to watch, my question is this: considering what a far cry South Africa is from a ‘rainbow nation’ today, what is achieved by viewing the story through a rose-coloured lens? Mandela’s dreams of equality and non-violence resonate through Madiba, so what do we gain from cutting the story off at his election in 1994, when temporarily, all is well?

I am all for interspersing uplifting entertainment with harrowing facts and harsh realities – otherwise I think the work can become inaccessible. I’m all for sending your audience away dancing, hopeful. But I think more could have been done to draw attention to current affairs; to the fact that the fight is long from over. Even a programme note, a call to action, would bring this work into the 21st century and give it as much purpose as it has positivity.

Rants in the Dark | Regional News

Rants in the Dark

Written by: Emily Writes

Directed by: Lyndee-Jane Rutherford

Running at Circa Theatre until 16th Feb 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

I’m so glad I brought my friend who is a new mama along to Rants in the Dark. Leaving her six-month-old for the longest time yet to attend the show, she told me, was totally worth it. She laughed, she cried, and she’s bringing her other new mama friends along too because she knows it will resonate deeply with them – especially the ones who are struggling.

For me, whose only child is a cat (and I’m profoundly aware that this doesn’t count), Rants in the Dark is an expressive and hilarious insight into motherhood – and what I might be in for should I choose to extend my family. Does a dog count though? Can it, please? I’m inclined to agree with the rumours that the show acts as a pretty darn good method of birth control, and not (just) because of the poop.

Beautifully adapted by Mel Dodge, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, and Bevin Linkhorn, Rants in the Dark sheds light on the brutal judgement parents are subjected to. It’s fantastic to see such an emphasis on redefining the way we regard and treat mothers.

But that emphasis is as gentle and kind as it is strong and powerful – much like Emily (Renee Lyons), the mother of toddler Eddie (Amelia Reid-Meredith) and a newborn. One of my favourite actresses, Lyons’ performance surprised me on the night, never quite peaking when I wanted it to but reaching unexpected heights in other moments. Nevertheless, she approached the role with tender understanding.

Bronwyn Turei (drolly aloof as Emily’s husband) and Reid-Meredith were fabulous as the chorus, working in perfect harmony to deliver snapshots of pure comedy gold. The production shone when the three worked as an ensemble – a scene involving glittery playdough was my highlight. A set trick (Wai Mihinui and Ebony Tiopira-Waaka) created a colourful, messy, and delightful stage picture and was another favourite moment of mine.

Rants in the Dark is brilliant – funny, fierce, frank, and above all, sincere.

Green Book | Regional News

Green Book


130 Mins

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Annabella Gamboni

Green Book is heart-warming, straightforward, and optimistic. It’s basically everything that real-life racism isn’t.

The Golden Globe-winning film is essentially a buddy comedy, based on real events. The classically trained jazz pianist Dr Don Shirley (Ali) is embarking on a tour of the South in the Jim Crow era. As a Black man, he knows the trip could be perilous, and so he hires Italian-American Tony ‘Tony Lip’ Vallelonga (Mortensen) to be both his driver and bodyguard. While ‘the Doc’ is highly educated and a bit uptight, Tony Lip is a boarish chatterbox who eats whole pizzas folded over like a sandwich. Over the course of their eight-week sojourn, the two very different men learn to like each other.

Directed by Peter Farelly (There’s Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber), Green Book is best when it’s funny. Ali and Mortensen play off each other wonderfully when stretching the outer limits off their characters – the scene where Lip convinces the grease-averse Doc to try fried chicken for the first time, for example. Mortensen is also to be applauded for his incredible commitment to the role (he must have packed on 20kg in his belly alone), and for breathing a rich inner life into Lip.

However, the film’s view of racism is pretty rosy; it’s posited as a past tense problem rather than something that continues to oppress millions of Black Americans. The Green Book that the title refers to is a publication detailing which motels, shops, and roadside diners would welcome ‘coloreds’, and which it would be best to avoid. It’s a relic of an overtly racist past – it almost seems ridiculous now, alongside smoking inside and segregated restaurants. Green Book points to those things as evidence that we’ve changed.

But have we? Thanks to the current President, the pain felt in America’s minority communities in 2019 is hot and angry and urgent. This kind of filmmaking, in these times, feels insultingly reductive. Green Book wants to make you laugh, cry, and forget about America’s racism problem for a couple hours. And that’s okay. But I think it’s high time for the more difficult conversations.

If/Then | Regional News


Written by: Brian Yorkey

Directed by: Ellie Stewart

Gryphon Theatre, 30th Dec 2018

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Ellie Stewart witnessed the swan song of If/Then on Broadway in 2015. Moved by the sheer emotional force of the work, she decided to stage it in New Zealand for the very first time with The Wellington Footlights Society. How lucky for us.

If/Then follows Elizabeth (Cassandra Tse), a city planner living in New York. While in the park one day, she receives a phone call that changes her life. Beth answers the phone, but Liz doesn’t. And so opens a parallel universe. We walk down two paths: the If of Liz, and the Then of Beth.

This Wellington Footlights production is polished to perfection, with delicious harmonies from a committed, talented ensemble. Each member is exquisitely energised and perfectly in sync with the next. It’s excellent ensemble work with enthusiastic choreography from Katty Lau. At times though I craved a little less action.

I found some of the blocking quite distracting. During a poignant scene, an exerciser zealously stretched stage left, pulling focus from the tender moment taking place centre stage. Distracting too were clunky changes of scenery (the images adorning the three frames lining the back of the stage), but most importantly, I often found my line of vision obstructed. Staging a full-scale musical in a small space can foster serious intimacy. Not being able to see the emotion etched on the actors’ faces pulled me out of the play and meant it had less impact on me overall.

Of course, that’s not to say I didn’t cry! Tse’s phenomenal performance had me all of a blubber, the purity, clarity, and power of her voice outstanding. My companion and I particularly enjoyed Caitlin Penrose’s sincere portrayal of Kate, and Michael Stebbings’ superb comedic timing as Lucas. Playing Stephen, Chris McMillan’s unique, gravelly voice was the standout for me, though each cast member should be commended for their vocal work under the expert guidance of musical director Cameron Stewart.

If/Then is a supremely entertaining production that will hit you right in the gut.