By Thomas Sainsbury
Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by Silo Theatre
Q Theatre, Auckland | June 6-28
This show is too good for the puns its name will inevitably draw. Right off the bat, with Toni Potter playing the Katharine Hepburn-by-way-of-Huntly mother Leanne, and Adam Gardiner playing the well-meaning yet dim-witted foster child Rupert, it’s clear that Sunday Roast is a special creature. And a hilarious one at that.
I don’t hesitate in saying that Sunday Roast is the funniest show put on by a major theatre company in Auckland in some time, not that there’s been much competition other than Silo’s own Private Lives almost two years ago. It’s also probably the darkest show put on by a major theatre company despite its affable humour, skewering rural New Zealand with haunting precision.
It’s no real surprise that this success comes from the mind of Thomas Sainsbury, the brains behind such similar dark comedies as last year’s triumphant Janeece Gunton: Herstory and The Family Wilder, which also took delight in skewering the dark underbelly of New Zealand society. While the play showcases his usual offbeat sense of humour, equal parts filthy and innocent, this is his most thematically ambitious work. The characters are more clearly drawn parodies, the situation is only a few (admittedly crucial) steps away from reality, and there’s a sick universality to it that makes this a truly special piece of theatre.
Sainsbury’s script has been given a polished, brave production by Silo, with a cast and crew clearly devoted to bringing it to life. The cast, only Toni Potter and Adam Gardiner playing a few characters between them, are front and centre throughout, and the production really rests on their shoulders.
Potter is terrifyingly great in all her roles, whether it be the aforementioned Leanne, the coded female bodybuilder Courtney, or the ten years too late Britney Spears wannabe Tamsin. She channels Sainsbury’s voice and has an electric presence onstage that makes her a joy to watch; each character has a clear core and voice that really allows her the flexibility to do some crazy, hilarious things throughout.
Gardiner is less strong than Potter, seeming to build his characters out of tics and funny voices rather than anchor them in anything concrete. His Rupert and Anthony are very similar vocally, whereas his Diane is initially difficult to tell apart from the other characters. Aside from this, his transitions between characters are less clean than Potter’s chameleonic shifts. However, his Francois is a bizarre bit of genius, and his patriarchal Philip is equal parts buffoonery and menacing. It doesn’t hurt the production much, and he has a definite chemistry with Potter that sparks some of the best moments of the play.
Daniel Williams’s set is clever in its versatility, serving visually as a cross-section of that messy Kiwi shed that we all have in our backyards while being adaptable enough to serve as the backdrop for anywhere the script chooses to throw at it. It also lends the production a dark undertone: we’re seeing where all this family’s secrets are kept and it’s laid wide open for us to see. Jane Hakaraia’s lighting works well with the set to define the various spaces, while also amping up the gruesomeness of some of the play’s more shocking moments.
Sunday Roast has been given a production that makes a big statement without ever insisting upon itself. It’s a credit to Sophie Roberts that it delivers this statement in terms of artistic direction—as it will invariably be viewed—but is also just a great production. It is a local play, a big step up for an already critically acclaimed writer, and a step into darker, more homegrown territory for a company committed to producing contemporary work. The production has Roberts’s thumbprint on it without ever taking precedence. There is a cleanness to the production, even in the final 20 minutes where things get truly crazy, and an emotional clarity that is pure Roberts, and it puts to rest any concerns an audience might have had about the company post-Shane Bosher. This production and this company are in safe, talented hands.
Which leaves us with Sunday Roast, which is a damn good show, and a hilarious one at that. If you’ve liked a Thomas Sainsbury show before—and chances are everybody who is even slightly into theatre in this city has seen a Sainsbury play—then you’re going to love this. And if you’ve never checked out a Silo show, for whatever reason, this is an engaging, entertainingly low-brow place to start. See this show.