By Amanda Walden and Jodie Ellis
Basement Theatre, Auckland | May 22-26
An agoraphobe. A guy who looks like Barack Obama. A straight-laced girl. A party girl. These characters have little in common other than the fact they share an exciting double bill from two new writers, Amanda Walden and Jodie Ellis. Walden has given us a hilarious madcap comedy while Ellis has written a gritty, pulpy drama. Both plays are great times, and both plays are also very worthy of your attention.
The first show in the double bill is the charmingly titled You Are My B.O, about an agoraphobic woman, Desiree (Amanda Walden) living with her mother (Jodie Ellis) and a young flatmate, Ben, who is all too eager to move in immediately and looks a whole lot like Barack Obama (Taofia Pelesasa). What unfolds is a near-screwball comedy with an almost sitcom feel to it, but also with a clear human heart at the core.
What ensues is an entertaining back-and-forth between Desiree and Ben as they navigate their strange arrangement, and the quip-heavy script allows the two actors a lot of room to breathe and play around. As the balls-out-crazy Desiree, Amanda Walden is an utter delight. With a great sense of comic timing and an almost-birdlike physicality, she sketches out the details of this woman’s life and manages to embody both the sadness and the hilarity of her situation. It’s a delicate, nuanced performance for a character that deserves nothing less.
Taofia Pelesasa is just as good as Ben, using his body to great effect with big wide gestures and expressions; a moment on the couch is particularly hilarious. However, much like Walden, he never loses sight of the sadness in his character and what he’s hiding; it’s the softer, quieter moments where he really excels. Both actors have a great chemistry with each other and it’s great to see them dig into some of the script’s more ridiculous situations. Special note has to go to Jodie Ellis in the role of the mother—even though she is largely offstage, she makes a hilarious impression as the harried mother to poor Desiree.
You Are My B.O is also a visual and aural treat. Dan Breton’s lighting makes good use of the space and the transitions between day and night, and the score, although minimal, is used very well. There’s a sequence early on in the piece where we see Desiree and Ben going through their day and it does as much to illustrate their characters, caught up in their own neuroses and situations respectively, as anything they say does. It’s a lovely moment in a comedy that never quite loses sight of the humanity at the core of it.
At completely the other end of the spectrum is Substance, a pulpy, near-soapy (in a good way!) drama. It revolves around two friends, the straight-laced Greer (Elyse Brock) and the party girl Nat (Jodie Ellis) and their dream to get to New York. Things are complicated by Nat’s drug dealer boyfriend (Steven Chudley) and his growing debt, and then complicated even more by Greer’s new boyfriend Bryce (Tim McPoland). Drinks are had, drugs are taken, and everything goes awry fantastically by the end of the play.
Much like You Are My B.O, the primary joy in this play is in the performers and their ensemble work. Elyse Brock and Jodie Ellis have a warm chemistry between them, and they make some of the lighter moments in the play pop. They both excel when they get into the heavier stuff as well and both actresses have some very well-played moments toward the end of the play when it turns down a very dark path. Chudley and McPoland also serve their characters very well; Chudley imbues Jason with a very palpable villainy, but also with enough charisma that you believe that Nat would stay with him. On the other hand, McPoland gives Bryce enough good guy charm while still layering it with a little something darker that clearly foreshadows what comes later in the play. It’s a strong ensemble all around and it’s very clear that they’re comfortable with each other, and this really shows in some of the lighter moments.
Substance is a bit more stylistic than You Are My B.O, and the lighting and sound design serves the play well; they somehow manage to get two different living rooms and a club out of one set with some well-managed transitions. The grungy edgy soundtrack also grounds the plot in a very raw, gutter-feeding place (aside from a nicely placed Britney Spears cut).
Both plays take themselves seriously when they need to, but it’s offset with some genuinely funny comedy. A huge credit to writers Walden and Ellis for this, and also for giving us two plays that are perhaps similar only in the way they tackle their characters: with sympathy, but also with a gently nudging elbow. There’s comedy to be found in even the most serious of places. It’s a refreshing takeaway from a refreshing pair of shows, and this impressive debut signals two new voices that I hope to hear more from in the future.