Auckland Theatre Company in association with
Young and Hungry Arts Trust | The Basement | July 9-24
Question: What do homicidal bunnies, angsty apple pickers and confused German exchange students have in common? Answer: I have no idea, but they all make excellent theatre.
The second Young and Hungry to reach Auckland, the Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre 2010 features three gems which are as tight and professional as shows with more experienced casts. The young actors are well-rehearsed and the backstage crew well-oiled to the point of invisibility. The response from their peers in the audience is loud testament that this initiative is achieving its objective of fostering talent and introducing more young people to theatre.
Exchange, written and directed by Lauren Jackson, is an absorbing and complex tapestry, weaving the experiences of five Kiwi exchange students in Germany with the stories of their host families. Westie Rob (Guillym Davenport) unexpectedly finds love and belonging within his host family, but must also find the strength to deal with the consequences. Mark (Joshua Tamatea) is forced to confront the question of his true heritage when he is questioned by an inquisitive host father; whilst Kiwi-Chinese Sarah (Phoebe Jin) also questions her identity and her ability to choose her own path during a nightmare placement. Samoan-Kiwi Charity (Suivai Autagavaia) must balance family responsibility with impending stardom, and innocent Liz (Sophia Cussell) learns about love and freedom—the hard way.
However, the most impressive acting in Exchange comes from the four actors who play the whole of Germany between them—Candice de Villiers, Moana Johnson, Ryan Carter and Chris Neels, who switch ages, roles and scenes with split-second precision and lightning costume changes. It’s a fast (45-scene) ride in just over an hour, but there’s little blurring due to well-judged visuals and sound effects, slick direction and most of all, a lean script where no word or detail goes wasted. Comedy and poignancy sit well side by side in this play. At its heart is a well-observed, intelligent musing on the different facets of our national identity.
If the virtue of Exchange is its focus, then Thinning’s is its lack of focus—a chaotic ride in the back of a summer apple cart. In the grand bucolic tradition of writers from Keats to Laurie Lee, Eli Kent has written a coming-of-age piece where the characters refuse to come-of-age. Pensive Adam (Jordan Blaikie), confident Troy (Tahlson Kennedy), joker Isaac (Jordan Selwyn), beautiful Billie (Katrina Wesseling), it-girl Lily (Pippa Neels) and shy Fraggle (Leah Neilson) go away together on a working holiday in that last magical summer between the end of school and the start of the rest of their lives.
And isn’t it the summer we wish we could all remember. In between getting sunburnt, eating apples and falling asleep on the grass (or weed, perhaps), the six friends argue, expose, forgive and have the kind of pointless conversations for which teenagers are renowned. Stirred but not shaken by Mel (Nicole Thomson), the unconventional orchard supervisor, each character takes a few steps—not necessarily forward—in that strange hinterland between childhood and adulthood. It makes for hilarious watching, although there’s a differential in the audience between those who ‘get’ the hip youthspeak (apparently it’s all about fluency of insults) and those older folk who are nostalgic but mildly confused. The young couple sitting next to me summed it up best: “That was so us!” they enthused, at the end.
Fitzbunny: Lust for Glory is an entirely different kettle of fish (or should that be bundle of bunnies?). Anyone who thinks bunnies are harmless and cute better think again: Fitzbunny is a two-foot tall homicidal megalomaniac with a penchant for pink who thinks nuclear bombs make good interior design. When a deliberately released calcivirus kills most of her (very large) extended family, Fitzbunny (Sara Stone) gathers her acolytes (Olive Asi, Jessica Bates, Omer Gilroy) and a hapless journalist (Virginia Frankovich) and they swarm New Zealand like a Black Power gang in sequins. Along the way she confronts guerilla sheep, dubious politicians (as if there were any other kind) and crazed American generals (see under politicians). She also contests a mayoral contest against John Banks and Len Brown. I found myself wishing for a world where wearing hotpants and going shirtless was acceptable pre-mayoral behaviour, though possibly if any of the incumbents tried it, I’d quickly find myself wishing for the opposite. But I digress.
What I mean to say is that Fitzbunny is explosive, funny and very, very unpredictable. It’s in a genre of its own. But if Fitzbunny was holding a knife to my throat, punk rock political manga burlesque comedy may partially cover it. Wellington Playwright Grant Buist plays fast and loose with current events and local politics and he’s clearly done his Auckland research (Len Brown’s credit card fiasco gets a dig, as does John Banks’s… well, all of John Banks). And did I mention the live three-piece band, and the all-singing, all-dancing numbers? The crazy sequined costumes and the high heeled boots and fishnets for everyone including the boys? Sometimes the laughter came out of sheer disbelief, but mostly because it’s all good exuberant fun. Special mention to Stone for the fine voice with which she carried out her lead role, to the chorus (Christopher Bryan, Jordan Mooney, Imogen Prossor, Thomas Webster and Jae Woo) for their energy, and to my favourite character of the night, Enderby the lisping lovestruck hedgehog (an aaw-worthy Daryl Wrightson).
For each play, there was a large group of young practitioners behind the scenes too: they are too numerous to mention here, but great use was made of the space by each of the plays, with simple but effective set changes transforming the Basement in little more than 20 minutes in between each play. Lighting, sound and projection were also handled smoothly in a versatile setup. This is great evidence that the formula is working – promising young practitioners mentored by more experienced industry members, all under the guiding hand of the Auckland Theatre Company (ATC).
The whole added up to a package of three tightly executed pieces which were easy to enjoy, and unexpectedly provocative and risky. I’ll come again to Young and Hungry.