By Lauren Jackson
Directed by Alison Quigan and Troy Tu’ua
Presented by Auckland Theatre Company
and The Pacific Institute of Performing Arts
Mangere Arts Centre, Auckland | April 26-May 3
Polly Hood in Mumuland is a brave title to give a show, even one as irrepressibly silly and ultimately well-meaning as this. At best, it sounds like a parody of a lark, and at worst, it sounds a little racist. However, this now well-trodden play (which is closer to a play with song and dance) leans much more towards the former than the latter.
It’s not immediately clear from the title—or at least to me it wasn’t —that Polly Hood in Mumuland is an updated version of the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, set in a fictitious Mumuland, a thinly veiled parallel to Mangere. Red (Suivai Autagavaia) is given some supplies for her sick Grandma (Italia Hunt) by her mother, who also gives her some vague directions and then, with her trusty sidekick and best friend Maile (Luse Sua) sets off on her way through Mumuland, catching late buses and avoiding dodgy underpasses, eventually being pursued by the big bad Wol (Tavai Faasavalu). It’s a narrative we’re familiar with, even when accounting for the twists that playwright Lauren Jackson makes on it.
Unfortunately, the script is the weakest part of the production. While it’s hard to tell where the book ends and the productions starts—and I can’t imagine that a Grandma vs. Wolf fight scene choreographed to Beyonce’s ‘Run The World (Girls)’ would be in the book—the play is unavoidably ropey and ultimately better off whenever it stops trying to tell a story and lets the production take over. Stereotypes are uncomfortably provoked throughout, the genderqueer character of Aunty Sila is ripe for some enthusiastic and vigorous unpacking, and it’s alarmingly difficult to tell whether the script is poking fun of its loosely veiled setting, parodying it, or making some kind of commentary. While thr play never lets these moments sit, it must be said that even in the most uncomfortable moments, it never comes off as racist. However, the material isn’t handled as delicately as you might expect or want in 2014. When the production eventually, and thankfully, pushes the script to the background and decides to have fun, it is at its strongest.
Polly Hood in Mumuland lives on its cast, and lives for its cast. Largely formed from the South Auckland community via open auditions at Mangere Arts Centre, it’s an incredibly enthusiastic and committed ensemble of 27, including three musicians and a DJ, which gives the production the hardest sell it could. From the physically versatile Faasavalu as the Wolf to the tiniest member of the chorus, this is a cast that is working in unison and with genuine drive to make this production as good as it can be. Even in the silliest moments—and it’s a rush to the finish line to determine which moment is the silliest—the cast never falters, nor does it fail to commit to it. They give the production an unshakeable foundation and even when the pace falters or the material is uninteresting, the cast is always a delight to watch.
A special note has to be given to Luse Sua as Maile, who gets an entire musical sequence to herself, and although there’s no narrative justification for it, she steals the play with a surprisingly aching performance as a girl who has just fallen head over heels. She also has wicked comic timing and enough verbal and vocal dexterity to throw a line where it needs to be thrown. She is an utter gem in a cast full of them, and the play is never more real and more fun to watch than when she is onstage.
Andrew Malmo’s lighting design is beautiful without ever taking centre stage; bright colours pop and bring out Rachel Walker’s minimal but evocative set. Nasatassia Wolfgramm’s musical direction pays off, although it is a little frustrating not to be able to hear some of the cast’s voices due to the amplified orchestra, such as it is. Alison Quigan and Troy Tu’a act as directors, the latter doing triple duty as actor and choreographer as well, and they bring it all together. There’s a cohesion here that makes this show less of a show for high school kids and more a spectacle for everybody to enjoy.
Which, ultimately, is what Polly Hood in Mumuland is. Uncomfortable undertones aside, this is an incredibly fun time at the theatre, and it’s a joy to see this level of work from a community that doesn’t get a lot of face time in mainstream Auckland theatre. Auckland Theatre Company deserves applause not for putting this show on, but for putting it on in this way, and it’s a production that I hope paves the way for more mainstream theatre out at Mangere Arts Centre. It’s a gorgeous space with a lot of potential.
But for the meantime, we’ve got Pollyhood in Mumuland. Go see it. Have some fun. And come back for whatever is at Mangere Arts Centre next.