“Second Afterlife” by Ralph McCubbin Howell; Directed by Leon Wadham
“Uncle Minotaur” by Dan Bain; Directed by Katy Maudlin
Young and Hungry: Auckland Season | Basement Theatre, Auckland | October 3-18
Now in its 20th year, the Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre is a celebration of talent, from putting on new scripts by both emerging and established talent, to encouraging young actors to stretch their skills with difficult and avant-garde material, to allowing a design team to develop and put their skills to use in an actual production. Young and Hungry is now in its fourth year in Auckland, and its second produced by The Basement, and this year’s two productions are an impressive continuation of the festival’s intentions.
The cryptically named Second Afterlife opens on a wild party hosted by Dan (Jackson Bliss-McCauley) and then moves quickly onto the aftermath, where Dan decides he’s going to delete his Facebook. However, he is taken into a world by a guide (Anthony Crum) who tells him that he must confront his old profiles, namely a Bebo account, a World of Warcraft character, and a NZ Dating profile, before he can delete his Facebook.
The DNA of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World lies deep in the play, but Second Afterlife takes a more emotionally realistic and plausible take on going through your past and taking responsibility for your mistakes, and the people you’ve hurt or ignored. Ralph McCubbin-Howell’s script is peppered with references, some of them a little too old for the target audience and even a little too old for me, but largely captures Dan’s dilemma without even feeling preachy or like a screed against the Internet. When the play steps out of the fantastical, it loses a bit of personality and the well-drawn characters step in line with archetypes we’ve seen played out before.
All of the cast have dual roles except for Bliss-McCauley and Crum, playing a real-life friend of Dan’s and a fantasy counterpart; it requires two very different styles of acting from the young cast, and they all pull it off without any strain. Particularly impressive is Jessica Stubbing, who manages to wring the most laughs out of her Regina George-esque gorgon in the naturalistic scenes, and aces a difficult looking tango in the Internet scenes. As the guide, Anthony Crum is also a comic highlight, and a lot of the play’s humour comes out of some truly bizarre choices of his that pay back tenfold. Bliss-McCauley has the right presence and energy for Dan, but a lack of connection with the rest of the cast creates some odd moments throughout; it doesn’t hurt the production in any major way and is likely the result of opening night nerves.
It’s a script that requires a lot from everyone involved, especially on the production side. There’s a lot of different worlds that need to be visualised, and the shifts between these need to be as seamless as the worlds need to be distinct. It’s a credit to the director Leon Wadham and the design team that Second Afterlife never reveals how difficult these changes must be, and it remains an incredibly fleet, poppy and enjoyable piece of theatre.
At the other end of the spectrum, Uncle Minotaur, written by Dan Bain, is a chilling story about Greta (Tomasin Fisher-Johnson), whose eye surgery is botched. She starts seeing things—weird things—which quickly turn mythological.
Katy Maudlin, who directed last year’s fantastic adaptation of The Odyssey, takes the Greek imagery of that play and runs with it. Bullying schoolgirls are re-imagined as snarling pitbulls, a mother obsessed with the Internet is re-imagined as a woman following a handheld light around the stage, and a dentist’s office is visualised as a location straight out of The Twilight Zone. It’s a credit to Maudlin that the story isn’t lost within these visuals, but the strongest parts are instead amplified and magnified for the maximum impact on the audience. The scene where Greta has her surgery is as chilling as anything I’ve seen onstage this year, a brilliant combination of sound, visuals, and performance.
The cast is uniformly excellent, committing fully to Maudlin’s vision. Tomasin Fisher-Johnson gives an outright star performance as Greta, playing an easy-to-pity character with surprising thorniness and complicity, and she complicates the play and enriches it every moment she’s onstage. Mataara Stokes brings an affable dorkiness to Greta’s new friend Hamish, and Brie Hill is an all too real out-of-it mother. Lutz Hamm has an especially tricky role in playing the Minotaur and nails both sides of the character without ever letting his connection with the scene slip, even providing one desperately needed laugh line.
The design elements of the play are also striking, from the costuming and makeup on the schoolgirls to the minimalism of the set, to the effective on-stage sound foley courtesy of Adam Ogle, punctuating scenes with clicks and ukelele playing. The entire show commits to one vision and tone, which is an incredibly satisfying and rare thing to see in any show, let alone Young and Hungry show.
Whereas Second Afterlife left me feeling happy and satisfied, Uncle Minotaur has kept me thinking long after I left the theatre. The play starts with a strong premise, and it ends with a chilling final image, but the storytelling in the middle is frustratingly unclear. This is not a result of the production, which pushes the wilder imagery that the play sets up to the extreme, but the script. The difference between the worlds are never particularly clear, which lends the play some of its horror, but it also leaves the audience in a place of confusion.
The most fascinating parts in the play—those that have also left me thinking—are also the least developed. The connection between Greta and the Minotaur has an implied psychosexual element, one that is mostly hinted at by the performances, and while it gives both Fisher-Johnson and Hamm a lot of material to delve into, the play never commits to exploring this relationship, which leaves the play without a strong theme to connect to. It’s a credit to both Maudlin and the cast that the play comes off as strongly as it does, and it’s a strong production by any standard.
Once more, the Young and Hungry Festival gives us shows that are surprisingly polished and surprisingly good, given the fresh talent involved with them, and it’s both a reminder of the talent we have constantly coming through, and an assurance that the future of theatre is in very safe hands.