Written by Tom Sainsbury and Renee Lyons
Directed by Abigail Greenwood
Q Theatre, Auckland | August 9-18
Solo shows test an actor’s charisma and talent; can they hold an audience’s attention for the duration of the show? They test a writer; can they write a show that can only be performed by one actor and still tell a full-fledged story? They also test the audience; can we follow the story as being told or expressed by one actor for an entire le hour? However, it’s only when a solo show is bad or dysfunctional that it truly becomes a test. The Triumphants, a double bill of two solo shows, is far from testing, but a genuinely engrossing, engaging, and plain excellent pair of works.
The shows are disparate in their focus, even if they share a similar theme of characters overcoming their difficulties, whether they be self-imposed or the result of a horrible twist of fate. In this way, the title of the double bill is fitting, if not uplifting, as these are both stories of triumph, regardless of the nature of the triumph.
The first show, And Then You Die, is written by the prolific Tom Sainsbury and stars Aidee Walker. It follows the story of Debbie Le Valiant, a consistently down-on-her-luck and down-on-herself twentysomething who holds down a middling job in a middling store in a middling shopping mall. She is a comfort eater, forms emotional attachments to men very quickly, and is constantly talking down about herself to herself. There’s something about Debbie that spoke very deeply to me; I think there’s something universal about her story, I think we all have a voice in our head that we silence one way or another, maybe through food, maybe alcohol, or something else. Sainsbury’s script is delightful, finding both the comedy and the darkness in Debbie’s story, and even if the second half goes off the rails in a way that doesn’t benefit the show or the character, the final minutes reveal such a mastery of tone that I’m so willing to let it slide. Sainsbury grounds Debbie’s story in some weird Venn diagram of sweetness and darkness, maybe proposing the idea of a comparative triumph: what is a punishment to us may actually be a triumph to Debbie’s troubled soul.
Nick, written and performed by Renee Lyons, is the second show, and it couldn’t be more different. It revolves around Nick Chisholm, who is in an accident that requires years of recovery, and Lyons plays a variety of characters surrounding Nick, from the Korean orderly Soo Young who functions as a hilarious, and sometimes necessarily uplifting framing device to Nick’s mother Joss, to Nick’s AA sponsor, the very idiosyncratic Liam. With the use of some brilliant lighting and sound techniques, she also plays Nick, and gives us an idea of what it’s like to be in his predicament. It’s an enormously affecting, heartbreakingly honest show that thankfully strays far from cloying or sentimental, and gives us a portrayal of how real people cope with this situation.
Despite the strengths of the respective scripts, the shows really rest on the shoulders of the performers. Aidee Walker gives a full-on star performance in And Then You Die. She switches between characters fluidly; she sings and she dances; and she defines each character instantly with specific physicality and voices, from Debbie’s almost infantile inner voice to Debbie’s over-the-top, almost certainly on some kind of cleanse American flatmate Katrina. It’s really a show that allows Walker to marry her considerable talents with a character who truly deserves them.
Renee Lyons is also flat-out flawless in Nick. Like Walker, she plays a range of characters, but the show is more reliant on characters being in the same space, being in the ‘real world’, and the way she moves between characters within a scene is almost like witnessing multiple actors play them. There’s also something compelling about her stage presence, like she’s reaching out and inviting you into this world, rather than demanding to be watched. She’s a delight on stage, and she inhabits every character fully, especially vocally (her South Island rugby player brogue is particularly brilliant), but her biggest achievement is playing Nick, often only with the use of a torch. She’s harrowing, sympathetic, and engaging without ever insisting upon any one of those things. A brilliant performance from a show, and a story, that truly deserves it.
Abigail Greenwood’s direction fits both stories well, and she seems to mould her style to fit each story. For And Then You Can Die, there’s a lively visual style generated by the lighting, sound, and set choices, that emphasises Debbie’s story and drags the audience into it. On the other hand, the style for Nick is minimalist; the set is bare and the lighting is expressionistic, which makes some of the more wrenching parts of the play that much more affecting. Greenwood’s direction really ties all the aspects of these plays together, giving a strong foundation for the actors to build a performance and a story from. Kudos also must go to Jane Hakaraia’s lighting and set design, and Alistair Deverick’s sound design. There are two very different approaches for each play—again, sprightly for And Then You Can Die, understated for Nick—but they work for each show and highlight the aspects of both.
Ultimately, The Triumphants is a successful night of theatre. It gives us two stories that we haven’t seen before, two stories of human triumph. Triumph over our own insecurities, or triumph over the travesties that burden us. It’s uplifting, affecting, fun, and genuinely made me think. See it!