By April Phillips
Directed by Todd Rippon
Basement Theatre, Auckland | August 13-24
This production of Motel shows us why The Basement is such a vital space in Auckland theatre. It’s one of the most intimate places you can see a show, and where you can watch two strangers in a motel room along with a hundred or so other strangers. Motel uses the space well, and it is the best aspect of the show—to see eight actors giving grand performances while only being a metre or so away from them. (I sat front row in the centre block, which seems to be the most ideal place to watch the show.)
As the title suggests, Motel is set in a seedy motel room. There are four scenes, which are mostly unrelated vignettes, and we follow two characters in each vignette. April Phillips’s script sets up the four scenes well—they are all soapy and familiar in a way that engages us—and even though the plots seem overworked and some of the dialogue seems underworked, the actors give it their all in each scene and turn the play into a truly entertaining experience.
The first scene follows Jenny (Renee Sheridan) who has come to have sex with a stranger (Coen Falke). This is a great scene to start off with; there’s entertaining dialogue and Sheridan makes Jenny’s plight authentic and real. We see each decision play across her face, and the opening stretch, where she’s largely onstage alone, is one of the best moments of the entire show. Sheridan holds the stage effortlessly and she creates a character with such a rich interior life that I can see her before and after the scene we witness.
The second scene is the most impressive, barring one glaring flaw. However, the two performers, Lorae Perry and Peter Hayden, who play an unassuming older couple who hire out a motel room for their own purposes, are flawless. The script is also strongest here, where we get an idea of what this couple’s marriage has been like without any overstatement, and the actors fill in a lot of the subtext themselves. The scene also has to be commended for showing some real, bracing intimacy between older lovers, something I haven’t seen much of onstage, and to see it without vanity or preciousness here is a real treat. The scene is unfortunately marred by a cheap ending intended as comic relief, but frankly comes off as derailing. Thankfully, the performers and the script are strong enough to maintain this as the most successful scene of the four.
After the interval, the third scene seems to serve largely as a break. The motel manager (Ken Blackburn) who has featured in the three previous scenes briefly sits down and has a drink with a travelling salesman (Cameron Rhodes). The most comic of all the scenes, it’s also the slightest of them, centring on a revelation that comes very late. However, it’s a pleasure to see actors as accomplished as Blackburn and Rhodes go toe-to-toe in any setting, and despite the slightness of the scene, it’s always entertaining.
The final scene features a stunning Liesha Ward-Knox as a woman who has come to the motel for an affair, and her encounter with a maid played by Ruth Dudding, who seems more inclined to talk than do her job. We see the ending coming a mile away, and it’s hugely satisfying when it comes, but the actors are compelling to watch, especially a winningly fragile Ward-Knox who makes her character’s actions come from a very genuine place. A comic epilogue to this scene doesn’t cheapen it like it does the second scene, and allows the audience to exhale and finish the play.
The play is lit delicately by lighting designers Craig Hutchinson and Amber Molloy, and Rippon’s direction is unfussy, albeit with some odd music choices. Phillips’s script is too schematic to be truly great, but it provides the actors with some really great chances to take risks and delve into their characters, and it has to be commended for that. And that’s the main reason to see the play: the chance to see eight actors dig into characters and bring out some heartbreaking truths and hilarious moments from them at close range. If that’s your jam, and it should be, then go see this. You won’t be disappointed.