By Richard Bean; Directed by Alison Quigan
Auckland Theatre Company
Maidment Theatre, Auckland | July 18-August 10
Absolutely Fabulous meets New Scientist.
After raging intellectual comedy Anne Boleyn, Auckland Theatre Company gives us another comedy, only something a little bit closer to home, period-wise. However, The Heretic is no less intellectual than Anne Boleyn, even if the humour it hits is on a more three-camera-sitcom level than their previous show.
Diane Cassell (Jennifer Ward-Lealand) is the titular heretic. She’s an environmental science professor at a university, and one who is a notable sceptic of global warming. However, her scepticism comes less from a place of ignorance and more from a place of unwavering scientific belief. Orbiting around her is her angry, anorexic, stage-swallowing daughter, Phoeobe (Jess Holly Bates), and a daffy hippie of a student, Ben (Jordan Mooney), with strict rules around his own impact on the world. As you might expect, her opinions and her unapologetic nature about them leads to strife with her job and colleagues, namely her superior Kevin (Stelios Yiakmis).
As a piece of writing, The Heretic is almost deceptively sitcomy. Bean is engaging with some very heady material, less global warming scepticism than the battle between politics and science. Through Cassell, he appears to endorse a healthy agnosticism to scientific matters until things are empirically proven, but as the play goes on he cleverly shades her steadfast beliefs with some believable human doubts and raises the question of if we can ever be truly scientific and impartial about something. Politics, and humans, always get in the way.
This sounds like heavy stuff, and it is. But this is a comedy, and a hilarious one at that. Bean expertly sets his plot and characters up in the first half, and it’s an hour of entertaining two-handers with witty jokes and some very nice character moments. The second act is where the plot really kicks into gear and for long stretches it’s like sitting in the studio audience for a three-camera-sitcom while the characters throw improbably clever jabs and jokes at each other. These are the only times where the cracks in Bean’s script shows, and although the show is never unpleasant or even unfunny, at times it feels less like watching a stage show and more like watching a uniquely themed sitcom.
But Bean is to be credited for approaching his theme, and these characters, with something close to apoliticism. Nobody is safe and no opinion is left unturned. He’s far more interested with what makes people think the things they do than those things. And as the play comes to a beautiful close, that’s what lingers with me more than any of the jokes do.
What also sticks for me is the cast. Namely, an impressive Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Diane. It’s always a pleasure to watch this actress onstage, whether she’s standing at a mic during Brel or tearing up the stage in August: Osage County, and here she displays a genius comic timing that makes every joke hit just that little bit harder. She also translates Diane’s quick thinking to the characters more vulnerable moments, especially in the second act, so we see that this character is a fully-formed woman with her own very real fears. It’s a standout performance from an actress who can’t help but stand out.
The cast orbiting Ward-Lealand is equally pleasant. Jess Holly Bates’s approach to Phoebe is initially bracing, but that’s also the character, and by the end of the play her wide-eyed and militant approach to Phoebe entirely won me over. Jordan Mooney and Stelios Yiakmis are well-cast as the male foils to these female characters, and both have their standout moments, namely a sweetly stupid song from Mooney and a very quick unravelling from Yiakmis when things go downhill for him. As a security guard who takes his job very seriously, Grainger is big and bumbling, and he makes the most of a character whose purpose is to be comic relief for a comedy. Finally, in the role of Diane’s human resource manager, Lauren Gibson excels and more than holds her own against an actress with some of the funniest non-dialogue moments in the play.
The Heretic is also very well done by the craft surrounding the play. John Verryt’s set design is eye-catching from the moment you walk in, and I’m not sure whether the screens at the back of the play count as his or lighting designer Jane Hakaraia’s choice, but they’re a brilliant decision that gives the play visual layers and makes it always very pleasant to look at. Costume designer Sara Taylor also gifts the cast with some stunning duds, especially Ward-Lealand’s heels and Gibson’s leather ensemble.
Finally, director Alison Quigan has to be commended for allowing the play to be the play. It would be easy to dress this up with a lot of intrusive blocking or set, but her clean vision allows the complex themes the play is engaging with to unfold without muddying it. To her credit, the play also moves along at a clip and even though it is a full two hours with interval, it seems the breeze right past.
The Heretic is not only a funny comedy, and I feel like I might be underselling it—I was laughing at most of the lines and left the theatre feeling buoyant and uplifted—but it’s also one that makes you think while you’re sitting there. And it’s not as simple as whether you agree with a character or not; it’s more whether you agree with why they think what they do. And a show that can make you do that, especially a comedy, is very special. Go see it.