By Yvette Parsons and Thomas Sainsbury
Presented by Pandora Productions
Basement Theatre, Auckland | June 18-29
It would be an insult to begin a review of Janeece Gunton: Herstory with anything but the incredible actress who swallows this show, and the entire Basement Theatre up with her performance, and spits it back out at us. So there it is, Yvette Parsons. I’ve never seen her onstage before this, but after seeing Herstory, she’s already an actress I think I’d watch in anything. As the titular Janeece, Parsons is terrifyingly committed as the amoral, warped woman who is leeching several benefits for herself and from her husband, while doing any number of other illegal and dodgy things on the side. All for one thing: a cruise through the Mediterranean.
Janeece is a creation of both Parsons and Thomas Sainsbury, and this play is another in a long list of them for the latter. It features all the hallmarks of a Sainsbury play: it’s funny, it’s filthy, and it explores the dregs of society in ways that are both hilarious and subtly dark. Even more crucially, it explores some specific New Zealand tropes and clichés, things that are only a few degrees from what is probably going on in the less-well-travelled places in New Zealand. Herstory makes Outrageous Fortune look like Go Girls.
To say that the play rests on Parsons’s shoulders is an understatement. It would be more accurate to say that Parson throws it over her shoulder on the way to a glorious performance. Her performances blend the comedic and the dark in a truly masterful way. Despite the fact that she nails every joke and moment of physical comedy, of which there are many, it’s all undercut by her terrifying dead-eyed stare that only shows brief glimpses of life throughout the play—namely, when she’s getting closer to her goal. Even more impressively, despite Janeece Gunton being a character who is foul right down to her overlong, glittery purple toenails (a genius flourish of costume design), Parsons make us root for her. Despite the fact that she’s essentially blackmailing a gay couple so she can have their baby and shows zero love towards her daughter when she comes to house, she’s a character we want to see win because she’s spent her entire life losing.
This makes it sound like a one-woman show, but other actors round out the production nicely. Sainsbury himself makes an appealing, if overly dainty, gay man who gleefully brushes aside Gunton’s many flaws because of his determination to have a baby. Andrew Ford plays a WINZ fraud investigator with his own serious dark side, and proves to be Parsons’s match in some of the most sexually dark, flat-out-wrong scenes. In an eleventh hour cameo, Roberto Nasicmento provides one of the biggest, and happiest, laughs of the play.
Then there’s Bryony Skillington, who is as masterful as Parsons playing her semi-estranged daughter, Shanté. Her comic timing is as sharp as Parsons’s, and she matches the actress beat-for-hilarious-beat. She also reveals Shantay’s decline into a Janeece-like amorality in a way that’s laudably subtle and compelling to watch. I could watch her and Parsons trade insults for hours.
This is a play that features many Sainsbury hallmarks, but also some of his usual shortcomings: the play, for instance, is a little bit long and feels like it could have been tightened in a few segments. Overall, this is probably the best play of his I’ve seen, and by far his funniest and darkest. But the drawcard here is Parsons. Come for the name, stay for her committed, towering performance that’s as good as any you’ll see this year, or any other year.