Hudson and Halls Live!; Guys and Dolls; The Last Man on Earth (is Trapped in a Supermarket)

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_hudsonandhallsWritten by Kip Chapman with Todd Emerson and Sophie Roberts | Directed by Kip Chapman
Presented by Silo Theatre Company | Herald Theatre, Auckland | November 6-December 10

For the uninitiated, the late couple, Peter Hudson and David Halls, were famous for their Kiwi cooking show in the 1970s and 80s. While most of my generation will only have a passing knowledge of their existence, Hudson and Halls was a staple for the average television watcher of their day, charming viewers with their affectionate bickering. But, most of all, they were famous for possibly being our first openly gay couple in entertainment, despite pressures to stay in the glass closet.

Developed over two years by writer and director Kip Chapman, Hudson and Halls Live! reimagines a Christmas special of their much-loved show as a live studio experience for the audience. It’s an inspired idea—the kind that seems simultaneously ridiculous and genius all at once. But, more importantly than the idea, the execution is what is so perfect, whether it’s in the passing of parsley or the signal for intermission.

The larger than life personalities of the duo are captured exactly by Todd Emerson and Chris Parker, mannerisms and vocalisations down to a tee. Parker, in particular, delivers a star turn, uncompromisingly campy but never gratuitously so. And despite the age gap between the performers and their intended-age, a more essential honesty shines through, and the friction between the two always hides a deeper sense of caring.

And then there’s the equally fabulous Jackie Van Beek as Ngaire Watkins. Her discomfort and overeager seriousness is the glue that holds the show together. She’s also the closest thing we have to an audience surrogate when you’ve got a larger than life pair like Hudson and Halls.

It goes without saying that the design elements are also all impeccable. Daniel William’s set is a perfect model of what you’d except from a cooking show of that era. Elizabeth Whiting’s costuming is also everything you’d want and more, transforming the actors into their colourful counterparts. And Sean Lynch’s lighting, while mostly quite straightforward, manages to service some great surprises too.

It’s a charming piece of contemporary theatre that doesn’t feel the need to be smarter than the audience to work. In a year peppered with new works that are largely postmodern, Hudson and Halls Live! is a breath of fresh air. The one and only disconcerting moment I felt was during the pre-show part of the performance where we are informed directly about the couple’s bleak end (cancer and suicide), delivered in a blackly comic and flippant manner. And while it mines some uncomfortable laughs from the audience, it also seems drastically out of place compared to the rest of the show, both emotionally and narratively.

It might not be my favourite show of the year, or the deepest or most profound, but it may be Silo’s most successful in how all its various ideas and elements come together. Hudson & Halls Live! is a joyous celebration of New Zealand’s television history, a love story, and a singular theatrical experience rolled into one. Gay in every sense of the word, it’s one of the must-see events of the year.

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img_guysanddollsBased on a story and characters of Damon Runyon
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser; book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows
Directed by Raymond Hawthorne; Musical direction by Robin Kelly
Presented by Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | October 29-November 22

My previous experience with Guys and Dolls is entirely secondhand, never having seen either the film or stage version before. So, to my surprise, the story was even more conventional than I expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, as convention exists for a reason, and there’s a certain safeness in the straightforwardness of the plot.

The story utilises the old romcom trope of a seduction bet gone awry. Nathan Detroit (Shane Cortese) bets lonewolf Sky Masterson (Roy Snow) he can’t seduce Sister Sarah Brown (Rachel O’Connell). Add to that, Detroit’s own problems with his marriage-hungry girlfriend Miss Adelaide (Sophia Hawthorne) and his floating craps game. While it might not be highly original, the 1950s New York backdrop does well to keep things fun, whether indulging in kitsch or old school cool.

Though never boring, the first act does take a while to warm to, as the first couple of scenes take their time setting up exposition for the craps game. It isn’t until the perfectly casted Snow and O’Connell meet and connect that there are any real emotional stakes for the audience to buy into. The relationship dynamic between Cortese and Hawthorne’s characters, on the other hand, hasn’t dated too well, though both do a stellar job playing up their New York caricatures.

The biggest and most enjoyable musical number doesn’t actually take place until late in the second act with ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat’ performed primarily by standout Andrew Grainger. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of other enjoyable songs, just that this one unfairly overshadows the rest, and reminds us just how much fun musicals can be.

Behind the scenes, costume and set designer Tracy Grant Lord has effectively captured the period with a delicate touch, remaining efficient for the scene changes. Lighting design by Andrew Potvin also serves the production well, especially during the more heightened moments through the show. And, most importantly, the choreography by Jeremy Birchall and musical direction by Robin Kelly both rise to the challenge to deliver an old-fashioned good time.

In director Raymond Hawthorne’s hands, Guys and Dolls is presented in relatively traditional fashion, taking few risks but also staying faithful to the story. While Auckland Theatre Company’s production is unlikely to make a convert out of someone unfamiliar with the show already, I imagine most people coming into it know what to expect. Despite feeling relatively muted in comparison to their more radical productions of Chicago and Jesus Christ Superstar, there’s plenty to enjoy from the performances all around, though it’s not quite convincing as the greatest golden-age musical.

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img_lastmanonearthWritten and directed by Ben Anderson
Presented by The People Who Play With Theatre
Basement Theatre, Auckland | November 3-7

The Last Man on Earth (is Trapped in a Supermarket) is my first experience with theatremaker Ben Anderson’s work onstage, having only read his The Suicidal Airplane, an unconventional playscript with illustrations, combining a childlike sensibility with profound adult themes. And I can happily say that his latest work captures that same unique quality.

The setting, at first, appears ill-furnished, conveying corner shop dairy more than supermarket. But, as soon as the show begins, director Ben Anderson and his team turn this superficial disadvantage into a powerful asset. The simple set becomes a playground for the imagination, utilising low-budget puppetry from oversized fruit and cereal boxes. Rather than displaying the horror of a post-apocalyptic world, The Last Man on Earth is more a character study, probing deeply inside the mind of an individual.

As our supermarket loner, Ryan Dulieu makes for a perfectly fitting archetype of young, ponderous, Kiwi male struggling with an understandable existential crisis. Assisting in the world building is also Chye-Ling Huang and Cole Jenkins who operate as stagehands, puppeteers and an acapela soundtrack. It’s their interactions with our protagonist that make the show as delightful as it is, and fill it with unexpected moments of pathos.

The best moment of the show is a team effort between all three performers operating a miniaturised version of our hero that lifts the show from cute to brilliant, a simple act that contains massive theatricality. Less successful are the attempts to go from pun-filled humour and heartbreaking dread. Not only are the tonal shifts jarring to adjust to, but the darker elements have none of the playful subtlety that make the show so successful to begin with. An anecdote about a lonely elephant from a National Geographic feels especially on-the-nose.

With an arresting final image, the show succeeds in filling audiences with a message of hope, but is almost undermined by the constant need to over explain itself. While the world of the play rests on being the subjective reality of our protagonist, sometimes the overexposure to his every thought leaves little to the imagination.

It’s rare to see devised physical theatre of an intimate scale executed with such a strong sense of storytelling, rather than merely being a mashup of ideas and moments. While The Last Man on Earth doesn’t always find perfect harmony between its message and presentation, it’s a thoroughly entertaining look at a lonely soul that anyone can enjoy, and deserves further development to reach its full potential.