By Roger Hall; Directed by Alison Quigan
Auckland Theatre Company
SkyCity Theatre, Auckland | June 7-30
Full disclosure: When I sat down in my seat and took a look around, I realised that I just might not be the target audience for this play. As a 21-year-old guy from South Auckland, I feel I am a decade (or two or three) younger and quite a few tax brackets below the vast majority of the people sitting around me. So when the curtain came up, I braced myself for a play that was as much not made for me as Nicki Minaj is not made for them. I was surprised with the following two and a half hours.
A Shortcut to Happiness is a comedy by the ever-prolific Roger Hall, following a stern widower Ned (Stuart Devenie) who goes to an empty folk-dancing class taken by Natasha (Laura Hill), a lively Russian immigrant. He helps her to get more people along to the class, like the desperate single woman Coral (Bronwyn Bradley), the lively seniors Janet and Laura (Catherine Downes and Sylvia Rands respectively), and the chronic-class-taking Bev and Ray (Alison Quigan and Cameron Rhodes). It’s an entertaining bunch of characters to lead through Hall’s poppy, frothy story, and they serve the play well.
Playing off of Hall’s razor-sharp dialogue and back-and-forths, the ensemble shows how well attuned they are to the rhythms of not only the script, but each other. They all keep the show going at a great pace, and the considerable length of the show flew by under their steady guidance. The highlight for mine was Laura Hill. From the moment her Russian immigrant dance teacher (a lot of qualifiers) walks on stage, she simply owns the stage. She handles a much-caricatured accent with aplomb and allows the jokes to be the jokes, not the accent to be the joke. She’s also a more than capable dancer and in one scene, an affecting singer. It’s a great role that really allows room for a lot of charisma and presence, and Laura Hill filters her own brand of both into the role. It’s a star performance, through and through. The rest of the cast fit into their roles very well, from Devenie’s appropriately terse line-readings to Bradley’s depiction of charming neurosis. There’s also a welcome late-breaking appearance from David Aston as the swarthy Sebastian, a pleasure better seen than analysed!
A Shortcut to Happiness benefits hugely from some very high production values. It’s hard to describe it without spoiling it, but the set changes are very well done and nearly had me applauding like a giddy child whenever they occurred. It’s the kind of visual spectacle that Auckland Theatre Company has the resources to pull off, and in this space, the visuals really take off. I particularly loved the immense detail of Ned’s house; the hundreds of books carefully stacked in their bookcases gives us so much detail about his inner life. The mirrors in the dance studio set give it layers and depth, while also being an accurate representation of a dance studio (or what I’m familiar with dance studios being like at any rate).
Special notice also has to be given to the dancing in the play, aptly performed by the cast and also beautifully choreographed by Marija Stanisich. Not only visually appealing, each dance shows how much better each character has gotten at the elusive art of Russian/international folk dancing, but also each character’s own disposition, whether it be the strange pairing of Bev and Ray or the exuberant Laura. The dancing fits the play well, not only is it the titular “shortcut to happiness,” but it adds some excitement and movement to what is a play largely driven by dialogue, witty though it is.
Alison Quigan’s direction help keeps the play together; the moves between the set are seamless, and the comedy is played up without ever going over the top. Even a square-dancing scene between her Bev and Cameron Rhodes’s Ray stays tonally within the play, and kept the audience laughing and applauding all along. It’s arguably her capable direction, along with the cast and production values, that elevate the play from its rather modest bearings. It is a witty and clever work, with a few well-placed cultural references, but it strays far from being a social commentary and stays firmly in the realm of fluff.
In saying that, as the curtain came up, all I could hear was the thunderous applause around me, so it’s clear that this play does have immense appeal for its target audience—which, as stated, does not include me. And I’ll be the first to admit that a whole lot of it went over my head, like a fair few of the jokes did. Even so, A Shortcut to Happiness is an attractive, frothy romp with a great star performance from Hill and a lot of pretty things to look at and listen to. And sometimes, that’s all you want from a night at the theatre.