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PSA: Election 2020 | Regional News

PSA: Election 2020

Written by: Thom Adams, Jamie McCaskill, and Anya Tate-Manning

Directed by: Gavin Rutherford

Running at Circa Theatre until 12th Sep 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Public Service Announcements is a long-standing recurring political satire show that pokes fun at politicians left, right, and centre.

PSA: Election 2020 features mammoth production design (Meg Rollandi and Rose Kirkup). Characters clamber and climb over, duck and dive under rubbish and rubble piled high into a Beehive configuration. Director Gavin Rutherford’s blocking utilises the levels to demonstrate status and emphasise moments of triumph and defeat. Televisions buzz static and crackle, LED lights flash and strobe (lighting design by Helen Todd), and vocal effects and overlapping voiceovers cause MPs to seem not only omnipresent, but occasionally demented (sound design and composition by Oliver Devlin). Meanwhile, politicians emerge from bins like trash.

The full firecracker cast of Johanna Cosgrove, Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, Hannah Kelly, Simon Leary, Sepelini Mua’au, and Matu Ngaropo open the production with a reworking of ABBA’s Mamma Mia. It’s a flat number due to the lower register of the singing and the lack of harmonies – which come out in full force in the pertinent finale, Politician by Kora. It’s all uphill from the first song. In fact, the musical highlight of the year has to be Savage by Megan Thee Stallion, performed by Ngaropo as the whisky-swilling Winston Peters, Dekkers-Reihana as literal cartoon character Shane Jones (my favourite performance), and Kelly as the upright Tracey Martin (who can sure bust a move). I screamed out loud at the choreography (Sacha Copland) and would pay to watch this performance on a loop.

With her delicious over-annunciation, Cosgrove makes a wickedly evil vampire out of Judith Collins. I can still hear Mau’au’s pre-pubescent “hi” as David Seymour, who sports a tin hat. Simon Leary’s doped-up James Shaw is balanced by his surprisingly sweet but sycophantic Grant Robertson. Kelly nails Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s press conference tactics with striking accuracy.

PSA: Election 2020 just gets sillier and more savage (ratchet, sassy, nasty) as it goes on. But it’s all in good fun – and what fun it is.

Tenet | Regional News



150 Mins

(2 out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

With Tenet, Christopher Nolan leans into his most frustrating tendencies as a filmmaker. A convoluted plot that requires non-stop explanation leaves its cast nothing to play with and action that, although visually dazzling at times, feels empty.

The Protagonist (John David Washington), along with his right-hand man Neil (Robert Pattinson), journeys through a world of espionage to prevent forces from the future destroying our world.

At its core, Tenet is a heist film. Introducing time-inverting technology doesn’t make this more interesting, just challenging. While Inception, another heist plot that incorporates fantasy technology, was driven by drama and emotional motivation, here the story feels crammed in. Nolan chews time explaining the mechanics of time reversal. Those with a doctorate in physics may enjoy picking this apart, although the film itself seems to admit it doesn’t stack up when Barbara, a scientist played by Clémence Poésy, instructs our lead, “Don’t even try to understand it”.

The pairing of Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography and Jennifer Lame’s precise editing is the film’s greatest asset. Their craftsmanship is on full display from the opening action sequence, which serves as an intense mood setter. Unfortunately, the concept doesn’t lead to outstanding visuals throughout. After a while, watching people run in reverse is not that engaging. Even if you are listening intently, the sound mix is muddy and loud, leaving chunks of dialogue inaudible – a recurring problem in Nolan’s recent films.

In two-and-a-half hours, we learn surprisingly little. By the time the credits roll we know next to nothing about our unnamed protagonist, his motivation, or the threat he faces. An effort to make us care about the villainous Andrei Sator’s (Kenneth Branagh) estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) feels frivolous when World War III is at stake. Although, this faceless threat never carries weight, especially since it comes at the hands of Andrei, a hilariously stereotypical Russian bad guy who I just can’t take seriously.

Tenet sacrifices storytelling in favour of complexity. If I don’t care about the characters in the story, I’m unlikely to invest in the story itself. In the end, I was simply bored.

Lowdown Dirty Criminals | Regional News

Lowdown Dirty Criminals


86 Mins

(3 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

A crime-comedy through and through, Lowdown Dirty Criminals revels in its over-the-top plot, violence, and Kiwi humour. At 86 minutes, it lacks the breathing room needed to properly acquaint us with its likable characters, instead choosing to deliver a brief, adrenaline-fueled romp.

When Freddy (James Rolleston) loses his pizza delivery job, his best mate Marvin (Samuel Austin) sets up a meeting with a ruthless crook, Spiggs (Scott Wills). When they muck up their first job, Spiggs demands they make amends by killing a gangster, an effort that lands the duo in hot water with an even more terrifying foe, The Upholsterer (Rebecca Gibney).

Writer David Brechin-Smith plays to genre, filling his script with delicious archetypes that give the cast infinite opportunities to go big. While Freddy is our guide, Lowdown Dirty Criminals is an ensemble effort at heart. Each actor brings colour to their role, from Rolleston’s hilariously naïve Freddy and Wills’ jacked-up, egocentric Spiggs to Gibney’s deliciously evil Upholsterer. Each member of the cast is given spots of action and comedy, which they almost unanimously nail.

The film has its foot on the gas at all times. While this pace works for its exaggerated style, it relents character development in the name of fun. Don’t get me wrong, it is very, very funny. But further investment in the relationships would have dramatically turned up the intensity. We buy Freddy and Marvin as mates, but that’s where it ends. We buy The Upholsterer as a scary gangster, but that’s where it ends. Life-threatening situations feel trivial, and with an additional 20 minutes or so, we could have become more engrossed in these people and the things that happen to them.

This movie is not one for the squeamish, but perhaps in these times some crazy fun is exactly what we need. Director Paul Murphy has crafted a uniquely Kiwi take on a well-worn genre. As a result, Lowdown Dirty Criminals stands out amongst our film library.

This Town | Regional News

This Town


91 Mins

(2 ½ out of 5)

Reviewed by: Sam Hollis

This Town excels in world-building and dialogue. A supporting cast of some of Aotearoa’s best balance laughs and drama, but a repetitive frame and an overreliance on its chosen storytelling devices eventually burns out its narrative.

Small-town bloke Sean (David White) is ready to move on with his life and re-enter the dating game five years after being acquitted of the murder of his family. A romance ensues with Casey (Alice May Connolly), while the bitter ex-cop who tried to put Sean away, Pam (Robyn Malcolm), continues her crusade for justice.

The film’s writer, director, and star, White, carries a heavy load. As for his pen, the story, characters, and setting of This Town are appealing and uniquely Kiwi. The fictional town of Thiston is a treasure trove of close-to-home satirical opportunities; some pulled off with gusto, some falling flat.

The sounds and scenes of Hawke’s Bay make for a glorious backdrop, but the camera is too often stagnant for the film to leave a visual impact. By the end, I’m simply bored of watching characters sit centre-frame to address the camera. This device introduces them well, but becomes a means to quickly pass by critical moments; to have a character sitting on a couch telling us all is resolved after screaming over the edge of a cliff five minutes prior deflates tension rather than building it to a bang.

Malcolm is This Town’s secret weapon. Her performance solidifies her as one of New Zealand’s most versatile talents. She plays moments of obsession, conflict, comedy, and sadness with ease, often within a single take. May Connolly brings endearing qualities to Casey, and Rima Te Wiata wrings laughs from every line as local reporter Janice McManis.

White brings a fresh style to his narrative-feature debut, but it is clearly just that, a debut. With a more refined approach, it will be interesting to see what he brings to New Zealand cinema in the future.

Amalia Hall with Stephen de Pledge | Regional News

Amalia Hall with Stephen de Pledge

Presented by: Chamber Music New Zealand

Public Trust Hall, 6th Aug 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

Being able, in this COVID-riven world, to go to a new Wellington chamber music venue and hear two outstanding New Zealand musicians perform an interesting and varied programme is such a privilege.

Each item in this programme was introduced by either Amalia Hall (violin) or Stephen de Pledge (piano), creating an intimacy appropriate to the repertoire and enhanced by the proportions of the new venue.

The programme ranged from the familiar (Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 in F major, the Spring sonata) to the new (Gao Ping’s Bitter Cold Night), and from the most classical Mozart (Sonata No. 19 in E flat major) to the very French Saint-Saёns (Sonata No. 1 in D minor). As if this were not variety enough, we also got Gershwin’s jazzy and vibrant Three Preludes as arranged by Heifetz.

As de Pledge told us, the programme was intended to be optimistic and joyful. But it was tempered with contemporary reality by the inclusion of Bitter Cold Night. Gao Ping wrote the work in response to the death of Dr Li Wenliang, the COVID-19 virus whistle-blower. It is a bleak piece, sparse and tentative, eerie at times, but with loud and angry eruptions. I felt that the audience held its breath for this wonderful and intense piece.

The partnership between the players showed to great advantage in Beethoven’s sonata, with de Pledge’s robust but intensely musical playing and Hall’s assertive but sweet violin. The third movement in particular was a delight – jaunty, cheeky, and flirtatious. While all the works were demanding, none was more so technically than the Saint-Saёns sonata. Hall said that the last movement meant that neither player had needed to go to the gym for a while. It is fiendish and hectic, with an absolute frenzy of notes requiring intense concentration. They pulled it off perfectly.

Midnight in Moscow | Regional News

Midnight in Moscow

Written by: Dean Parker

Directed by: Tanya Piejus

Gryphon Theatre, 29th Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Jezelle Bidois

It can go without saying that 2020 has and continues to present obstacles for us all and now more than ever has the need for imaginative escapism become more prevalent. I say that one only need attend Midnight in Moscow to obtain such freedom. Staged at the Gryphon Theatre, this performance sticks New Zealand dead centre between the battling ideologies of communism and nationalism at the tail end of the 1940s. Set in Moscow, the play enraptures each audience member in a world long past; one of espionage, conspiracy, and tragic romances.

The world of Midnight in Moscow is coloured not just by the period-appropriate costuming (Michelle Soper) or effective set design (Rachel Hilliar), but by the brilliant casting. Comprised of five Kiwis and two Russian characters, all the actors contribute to the whole performance’s success. This is seen through Lisa Aaltonen and Paul Stone’s convincing transformations into strapping Russian citizens. Through the observable spectrum of strong New Zealand women manifested by the characters of Sophie (Anna Woods), Madeleine (Nethmi Karunanayake), and June (Stephanie Gartrell). And finally, by the performances of Patrick McTague and Slaine McKenzie, whose posturings and changes in accents effectively transport the viewer to worlds only found in film noirs like Otto Preminger’s Laura and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

I believe the true success of Midnight in Moscow is how well it resonates with the audience. Though Dean Parker’s play is mainly set around the nature of communism against the backdrop of the 1940s, Midnight in Moscow caters for New Zealand’s unique culture and identity. With references ranging from our sporting interests to the stereotypes associated with particular areas of the country, this play provides for our need for adventure without leaving us too lost.

Under Tanya Piejus’s impressive direction, Midnight in Moscow inspires both widespread amusement and deep contemplation. And all those who attend leave more appreciative of things like friendship and the freedom of expression and thought.

Dungeoning & Dragoning | Regional News

Dungeoning & Dragoning

Produced by: Harriet Prebble and Gavin Rutherford

Running at Circa Theatre until 30th Aug 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

Full disclosure: when it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, I haven’t the foggiest. I’ve never played the tabletop roleplaying game before and couldn’t understand the appeal of watching other people play it either. After this show I’m happy to report I’ve done a complete 180 and will be seeking out all things D&D as soon as humanly (or elfinly) possible.

In this six-part season, Gavin Rutherford (Gart), Harriet Prebble (Thistle), Allan Henry (Armand), Gabriela Rocha (Kyrrha), and Dungeon Master Ryan McIntyre play one game of Dungeons & Dragons. Because each show is a complete adventure, you don’t need to see all six – but you’ll probably want to. After watching these characters take to the high seas, slice an ogre’s hamstrings, get really drunk, and practically melt Steve’s legs off (poor Steve), it’s safe to say I’m invested. So too are the players, all master improvisors whose passion for the game is palpable.

McIntyre weaves the story together, building entire worlds with words alone. Intuitive lighting (Tony Black) and epic sound design (McIntyre and Black) emphasise the Dungeon Master’s supreme craftsmanship at just the right moments. Rocha’s costume design allows audiences to get a feel for the characters before the game begins, but I’m craving the backstory that’s emerged from hours of playing before opening night. Resources in the foyer illustrate some history, but more of a prologue would help – especially if it included a brief description of how the roll of the dice affects the outcome of the game.

However, I soon pick up that a low roll is bad and a high roll is good. And the Dungeon Master does briefly introduce the characters, he's just drowned out by thunderous applause from the enthusiastic crowd. By the end of Dungeoning & Dragoning, I’m roaring along with them. I’ve been part of a communal experience – the hallmark of truly great theatre, and from what I understand, a great D&D session too. More worlds colliding more often, please.

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninoff | Regional News

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninoff

Presented by: Orchestra Wellington

Conducted by: Marc Taddei

Michael Fowler Centre, 25th Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Dawn Brook

I heard it often, people saying “It’s nice to be back.” As Mark Taddei said, Orchestra Wellington may be the first orchestra in the world to resume its subscription series since COVID-19 enveloped us. Still, since the original soloist could not get here, the programme changed. The massive third Rachmaninoff piano concerto replaced the shorter fourth, so for reasons of programme length, we lost the Schumann Manfred Overture to complement the Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony.

The bonus was having that icon of New Zealand music, Michael Houstoun, as replacement soloist. It was a disappointing night for him; using an electronic score, the technology developed a fault, requiring him to stop the performance and ask for it to be restarted. All credit to all performers; they picked up without fuss and completed the work without another glitch. To the audience it did not detract a jot from their appreciation of his forceful, lyrical, brilliant, and agile performance. He must have been on tenterhooks for the rest of the concerto but the audience was just glad that he too was back!

Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony uses a huge orchestra including 12 frequently used brass instruments and a good array of percussion with wonderful opportunities for woodwind to add colour to the scenes being painted. Add in soaring strings, two harps, a chiming bell, and an organ and there you have a recipe for over-the-top romanticism that had my companion gurgling with suppressed laughter at times. It was pretty marvellous. Holding the whole together was the evocative Manfred theme, dominating the first movement in which the despondent anti-hero wanders in the alpine environment, then reappearing in the sparkling, magical second movement where a fairy appears to Manfred, and again as he is cheered by happy bucolic scenes, and then finally in the demonic bacchanal of the fourth movement.

Welcome back, Orchestra Wellington.

The Road That Wasn’t There | Regional News

The Road That Wasn’t There

Written by: Ralph McCubbin Howell

Directed by: Hannah Smith

Circa Theatre, 22nd Jul 2020

Reviewed by: Madelaine Empson

The Road That Wasn’t There is a story about Maggie (Elle Wootton), who follows maps off the edge of the world, and her son Gabriel (Paul Waggott), who follows maps to real places thanks. Maggie is a child at heart, filled with whimsy and wonder. Gabriel is very much a grownup who stopped believing in magic ages ago. When Maggie’s neighbours and the townsfolk of St Bathans become even more concerned about her behaviour than usual, they call Gabriel home. And there, in his childhood home, Maggie finally tells her son the truth about where he came from.

What a wonderful story we have here. Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell, who plays a variety of characters with flair and gusto, has mastered a balance of accessibility and complexity. The work is suitable for older children with enough layers and depth to keep the adults engaged.

The Coraline meets A Series of Unfortunate Events vibe I was anticipating doesn’t kick in until a little later; I become entirely engrossed when the show takes a turn for the spooky. Like Gabriel, I finally take off my big kid’s hat and let Trick of The Light Theatre suck me into the mystical world they have created.

The design elements are what really hit this world home. Creepy but cute puppets (Hannah Smith, who directs), dramatic, eerie composition and sound design replete with charming ditties (Tane Upjohn-Beatson), and clever lighting that allows for shadow play (Rachel Marlow) each stand alone as exceptional. Together, they make a complete, cohesive whole at one with the action.

I love that the cast doesn’t stop performing when the puppets come out. Wootton embodies a younger version of Maggie with such conviction, it’s hard to know where puppet ends and human begins. Waggott’s besotted expression when playing puppet Walter melts my heart and plants a huge grin on my face that’s still firmly intact when the show ends.

The Road That Wasn’t There reminds me of just how magic magic is.