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Reviews

Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God | Regional News

Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God

Written by: Roland Schimmelpfennig

Directed by: Giles Burton

Running at Circa Theatre until 12th Oct 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Liz (the deliciously delirious Rebecca Parker) and Frank (sheer brilliance from Gavin Rutherford) live a comfortable life in a nice house that even has a garage. Their long-time friends Martin (Patrick Davies, who plays strong and silent with sensitivity) and Carol (a committed performance from Fingal Pollock) gave it all up to provide healthcare in a war-torn Third World country. The two couples reunite for a dinner party six years after they last met. When the wine begins to flow, so too do the secrets and resentments that both have harboured.

Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God is not slice-of-life theatre. While we are witnessing a dinner party, almost half the play is direct address, with characters regularly breaking the fourth wall to express their thoughts and feelings. It’s hard to place the chronology of events, with countless repeated lines, instances of foreshadowing, and moments of stillness when one would expect a storm. My favourite scene is when Frank busts out Simon & Garfunkel’s The Boxer on vinyl, but I doubt two people would calmly sit down to listen to a song after slapping each other.

I love a work that keeps me guessing, but don’t quite see the point here. I understand that Peggy Pickit aims to explore the gap between the Western and developing world by juxtaposing the perspective of two dolls while its characters ramble on about artisan salads. What I don’t get is why it spends 70 minutes making its audience question which parts of a dinner party have happened and which parts haven’t.

While I’m not a fan of the play, I’m a big fan of the production. Debbie Fish’s sleek grey set sets the scene beautifully, and director Giles Burton does well to create cohesion out of a convoluted script with concrete lighting and staging decisions. Rutherford’s genius comedic timing is one of the best parts of the show for me. The other? Watching Davies drink like it’s the six o’clock swill.

The Farewell | Regional News

The Farewell

(PG)

98 Mins

(4 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

The Farewell places us at the centre of an inter-generational, inter-cultural family drama. Its characters connect with each other and with those in the cinema through smart direction, good humour, and intense (but never sentimental) emotional differences.

Billi (Awkwafina), an aspiring writer, immigrated to New York with her parents when she was very young. She is still close with her relatives in China, particularly her Nai Nai/grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen). When Nai Nai is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, the family must fly back to see her. The only hiccup is Billi’s somewhat forgotten homeland traditions, which deem that Nai Nai must not know she is sick. And so, a faux wedding is arranged to deceive her.

Writer and director Lulu Wang creates a consistent tone that allows for moments of happiness, heated disagreement, longing sadness, and love. There is no clash between conversations in Mandarin and conversations in English, it all flows seamlessly. Her efforts are entangled with those of cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, who uses close mid shots and distant longs to pull us into this family dynamic, at times uncomfortably so. She heavily utilises the lower third of the frame, which puts us level with the characters emotionally.

Each family member is unique in portrayal and perspective. We see how the characters feel about the situation, and how they’re struggling to accept their lies. Particularly Billi’s parents, who are in the most interesting position as Chinese people with recent Western influence. Wang revels in the fascinating cultural comparisons.

Finally, the true stars, Billi and Nai Nai. Awkwafina and Shuzhen each give breath-taking performances. The intimate moments we spend with these two are sweet, entrancing, and funny. Billi sees how overjoyed Nai Nai is when the family returns and struggles between the moral obligation to tell her the truth and the guilt of stripping her happiness away. Nai Nai’s grace infects her and she must learn to be less selfish.

The Farewell is a universally relatable story, but it could – in the wrong hands – be a boring one. With this director and this cast, boy was that not the case.

The Pink Hammer | Regional News

The Pink Hammer

Written by: Michele Amas

Directed by: Conrad Newport

Running at Circa Theatre until 5th Oct 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Four women sign up to a carpentry workshop, prepay their fees (a hefty $400 apiece), and then show up to find their tutor Maggie has done a runner. Maggie’s husband Woody (Alex Greig) is none too thrilled about the strangers in his shed, especially not Annabel (Bronwyn Turei), who takes down his smutty calendar in an attempt to dismantle the patriarchy within minutes of arriving.

They’re a group of personalities, alright. Siobhan (Harriet Prebble) plans to seduce someone by building them a kennel (gets ‘em every time), while Louise (Anne Chamberlain) bakes gluten-free, vegan, kale muffins for fun. Horse breeder Helen (Ginette McDonald) will not be bringing a plate, thank you very much.

Michele Amas’ The Pink Hammer goes beneath surface comedy to explore characters that step out of their stereotypes in surprising ways. Woody isn’t as much of an unyielding Kiwi bloke as his name would suggest, Annabel’s fire has its origins, Siobhan is still running away, Louise is carrying a heavy burden, and Helen has just received a big blow. Underlying every beat of the script is the need for human connection and companionship, resulting in a funny but touching play.

Intuitively directed by Conrad Newport, cast members of The Pink Hammer take great care and delight in peeling back the layers of their characters. Highlights include Chamberlain’s sensitive portrayal of loneliness, McDonald’s purse-lipped disdain for affection, and Prebble’s cheeky, charming turn as a lascivious woman with an accent so convincing my friend was shocked to learn she’s not actually Irish. While I happily swallowed most of the script, I’m surprised none of the characters – especially Annabel – called Siobhan out for making unnecessary jokes that trivialised the Holocaust.

The twist ending is beautifully staged, featuring exceptional lighting design by Tony Black that bounces brilliantly off Daniel Williams’ impressive set, and great use of music. I would love to see more integration between the music and the rest of the play, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed this lovely production.

Cry-Baby – The Musical | Regional News

Cry-Baby – The Musical

Book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan

Directed by: Leigh Evans

Te Auaha, 5th Sep 2019

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Based on John Waters’ cult classic film starring Johnny Depp (which I haven’t seen, but intend to immediately), Cry-Baby – The Musical is set in Baltimore in the 1950s. It follows Allison Vernon-Williams (Flora Dryburgh), a teenage member of the super conservative, Squeaky Clean clique The Squares. Much to the delight of Allison’s grandmother Mrs Vernon-Williams (Malea Nicholson), Allison and Baldwin (Devon Neiman), the frontman of The Squares, are like, totally an item. That is, until Cry-Baby (Matt Mulholland) enters the scene. Cry-Baby is the ringleader of The Drapes, a group of rebel misfits who talk a big game but really just want to be loved like everyone else.

The plotline echoes West Side Story, but it’s not a particularly violent story – er, except for the part about Cry-Baby’s parents being executed because somebody Did Something Wrong, Once. I won’t spoil who that somebody was here but a direct note to the actor: your performance of that song was a show highlight.

In saying that, there are so many highlights, this production became its own highlight – of my week, month, even perhaps my year. Te Auaha’s musical theatre students just keep getting better and better. Standout moments include an extremely entertaining tantrum from Neiman; a mic-drop stare from Jake Elston, who was brilliant in every role he played; killer dance moves from the gifted Fipe Foai; a marvellously maniacal karaoke performance from Lane Corby; and grin-inducing boot licking from Bentley Stevenson. Special mention must be given to Dryburgh for a knockout performance – she’s really come into her own since The Addams Family – and to Jade Thomson, Caitlin Penrose, and Moana Leota for their exquisite ensemble work and harmonies.

Cry-Baby – The Musical is the epitome of a stage spectacular. It’s a dizzying explosion of colour, movement (phenomenal choreography by Leigh Evans), and sound, with musical director Kate Marshall producing exceptional powerhouse vocals from a cast filled to the brim with talent.

Joy | Regional News

Joy

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 31st Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

As with the pairing of symphonies number four and five in the second concert of this series, the partnership of number eight and nine made for interesting comparisons between the two works.

Symphony No. 8 is little, light, and rather fast and very loud in some places. It was extremely well played and stood its ground against the often heard, great choral Symphony No. 9 that followed. In contrast between the two, No. 8, referred to by Beethoven himself as “my little Symphony in F”, takes a little less than half an hour but No. 9 is 70 minutes long.

The Ninth Symphony is big, long, serious in parts, epic in others and, thanks to the Ode to Joy, utterly familiar to many. It is said to be the most frequently performed symphony in the world, the first choral symphony ever written, and is often regarded as one of Beethoven's greatest works. Given that a quirk of programming had seen the same piece on the same stage only a year earlier, there was an almost full house, giving great truth to the popularity of the work.

As a whole it is more than twice the length of No. 8. The first three movements are orchestral and substantial in scale and scope in themselves. In the fourth and final movement the choir and four soloists join and significantly increase the magnitude and depth of the sight as well as the sound.

It is impossible to know if the standing ovations at the finale were because of the popularity, the excellent performance on the night, recognition of the marathon Edo de Waart and the orchestra had been through or, equally likely, the delight and joy the audience felt after a performance delivered from the heart by an exceptional group of musicians.

Pastoral | Regional News

Pastoral

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 30th Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

A capacity audience nearly went wild after the third concert in the Beethoven Festival featuring the Pastoral Symphony (No. 6) and Symphony No. 7.

The Pastoral Symphony is Beethoven’s evocation of his feelings when in nature. Even though the fourth movement conjures up a tremendous storm complete with lightning, this is Beethoven at his most serene. On the other hand, Symphony No. 7 was first performed to commemorate war heroes. It bursts with frenzied energy and intense rhythmic activity.

Watching the NZSO perform is wonderful. You can see the shape and development of the music and the commitment, excitement, and satisfaction of the players. I saw a violist just about toss his instrument into the air with joy and triumph at the end of the concert.

In the Pastoral Symphony, the second violins and violas marvellously evoked the constant rippling of the stream. The flute, oboe, and clarinet provided bird calls of the nightingale, the quail, and the cuckoo to add to the bucolic picture. The rumbling of the double basses and the timpani announced the impending storm, with the trombones, horns, and trumpets summoning the thunder accompanied by the lightning notes of the piccolo. The flute proclaimed the return of peace and sweeping cellos and violas expressed heartfelt relief at the passing of the storm.

Aside from the drama of the storm, the Sixth Symphony is a kaleidoscope of gentle colours. Not so the energetic seventh. It was exhilarating both to hear and to see. The violins created great slashes of sound with repeated vigorous downbows. The cello and double bass players bowed as if their lives depended on it. The horns and trumpets hit the high notes, and the timpani rumbled and thumped. Not that there weren’t quieter moments, often exquisitely delivered by the wind section, but then dramatic swells of sound would recur. “Electrifying” would sum it up.

Destiny | Regional News

Destiny

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 29th Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Tamsin Evans

Without the professional musical stamina of the NZSO and Maestro Edo de Waart, my fellow reviewer and I decided to be sensible and share the load of four concerts and nine symphonies in one working week. Coming into the series at concert number two and Symphony No. 4, I approached this performance with a sense of curiosity and some high expectations.

The Fifth Symphony is so well known it's always exciting to hear how a performance will sound, but the Fourth Symphony is much less familiar to me and I was interested to see how it would fare alongside its more famous sibling.

Although you wouldn't be able to tell from the slow pace and minor key of the opening minutes of the first movement, No. 4 is lighter, brighter, and sounds altogether more delicate than the heavyweight No. 5. The composer's lighter orchestration maximised the effects of the pace and movement of the third and fourth movements. Played by a smaller orchestra, the individual parts were easily distinguished and the woodwind section excelled.

At the end of the Fifth Symphony I was left with a strong sense of having heard a 'complete' performance. Although sight and sound were the only senses physically satisfied, the feeling of having been fulfilled in many other ways was intense. A conductor will raise the baton and start when they are ready. The orchestra will be watching and prepared. Sometimes the audience can take a few seconds to settle and focus but, knowing what was coming that evening, everyone was captured from the famous opening notes. Brilliant direction and superb playing brought many of the audience to their feet after the closing chords.

The intensity and power of the Fifth Symphony quite overpowered the Fourth Symphony on the night. No. 5 is always available, but No. 4 is one I will seek out again for further listening.

Heroic | Regional News

Heroic

Presented by: New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by: Edo de Waart

Michael Fowler Centre, 28th Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I met a violinist as I left this massive concert. “You must be tired” I suggested; she said “No, I am exhilarated.” And there was every evidence from the tumultuous applause from what was a disappointingly small audience that everyone was exhilarated.

Maestro Edo de Waart looks like a cool customer leaning back into his conducting stool, but he had the orchestra totally responsive to his vision for these works. What marked this concert was the intensity of the playing, the passionate but precise rhythmic and dynamic drive, not lost even in the most lyrical sections of the symphonies.

This was the first of four concerts over four days covering all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies in order. This first concert covered symphonies one and two and the third, the Eroica symphony. While Symphony No. 1 largely followed the conventions of his predecessors, some contemporaries found the second symphony bizarre, and No. 3 took them well out of their comfort zone; it is twice as long as the first two and every symphony that had preceded it. Revolutionary as it was then, modern audiences simply glory in the drama of momentous insistent chords, clattering accents, syncopation, rapid changes in dynamics, musical jokes, and a variety of moods from playful, teasing, and rollicking good humour to delicate elegance, haunting sadness and grief, sombre reflectiveness, and dark foreboding.

Wonderful as the first two symphonies were, it was the Eroica that made this concert the memorable event that it was. The NZSO delivered a fantastic performance from the heroic nobility of the first movement, through the stirring funeral march of the second, the explosively brilliant third, and the imaginative outpourings of the fourth. If any players were to be singled out, it would have to be the exquisite and heartbreaking oboe and the rich and joyful horns. Bravissimo Beethoven, Maestro de Waart, and the NZSO.

Rigoletto | Regional News

Rigoletto

Presented by: Eternity Opera

Directed by: Alex Galvin

Hannah Playhouse, 23rd Aug 2019

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

With their fifth show, Rigoletto, Eternity Opera has served up the perfect invitation to opera for newcomers with some seriously engaging leads and a strong orchestral performance. Although, some die-hard fans may have been left wanting more.

The story concerns the egomaniacal Duke (Boyd Owen) and his jester, Rigoletto (James Clayton), who spends his days humiliating others for the Duke’s enjoyment. Rigoletto mocks Monterone (Roger Wilson) when he accuses the Duke of seducing his daughter, maddening him to the point of cursing the two men. Mistakenly, word gets out that Rigoletto is hiding a young lover, his daughter Gilda (Hannah Catrin Jones), who has taken a liking to the vile Duke.

With its twists and turns of paranoia and revenge, this story is dramatic enough to bring even the most resistant opera fans to the edge of their seats. Galvin leans into the action by minimising distractions. Sparse staging and no sets leave lighting and music to set the tone and assure the audience of where they are at a given time.

Owen and Clayton are worth the price of admission. They deliver their characters with charm and true understanding, never relying on their voices alone to startle the audience. Both gave extremely physical performances on opening night. We see a clear, heart-breaking difference in Rigoletto when he performs for the Duke versus his time hiding, protecting his beloved daughter. Owen has so much confidence it’s almost sickening, which works perfectly for the Duke. Every smirk, laugh, or contemptuous look is lapped up by the audience.

Owen, Clayton, and Jones deliver stunning vocal performances that, when paired with the tight chamber arrangement of the score, fill the Hannah Playhouse with ease. Watching Owen indulge in every beat of La donna e mobile is delightful. Unfortunately, this leaves weaker vocalists amongst the chorus and supporting cast to appear rather exposed. While visual minimalism allows aspects of the show to shine, it draws attention to less impressive elements, such as the costumes (Sally Gray), which lack consistency and flair.