NZ Arts Festival 2008, Circa Theatre
Feb 23-May 3 | Reviewed by Melody Nixon

ROGER HALL’s Who Wants to be 100?, is apparently one of the “fastest selling plays” in New Zealand’s history. An extremely depressing fact this; but at least the play is getting people into theatres. Director Ross Jolly invites us to consider whether this is Hall’s “best play yet, his funniest, darkest comedy;” and if the majority answer is yes then at least from Who Wants to be 100? we can glean a simple and effective formula of mass appeal. Make bawdy jokes, talk about poos, and keep the cast firmly rooted in one of the apparently dying bastions of the male domain; while highlighting and keenly reinforcing topical cultural issues.

To be fair, the play is in respects a resting place for those who have been, are going, or will go through the pain and self-doubt of admitting a loved one to a rest home. The legacy of our individualist society hurts us most when it comes to vulnerability; especially that of old-age; and any kind of dialogue on the topic must have its place. The elderly audience on the night I attended certainly found the play’s resonance, and stuck there, fast. But while maintaining respect for its subject the play had an apathetic aspect; like that of a conversation between family members in which no one wishes to challenge the elders who have the oppressive views. Hall refused to challenge us, and instead played it safe on our side – ‘this is your destiny,’ he said, ‘but at least we can all laugh about it.’ The result is you leave somewhat chilled, and still laughing.

Hall also presents a superficial discussion of the place of gender in the kiwi ethos; all the while keenly enforcing the notion of separation and irreconcilable difference between man and woman. With Who Needs Sleep Anyway? Hall displayed a degree of reinforcement of gender roles – here he goes a step further by laying blame for the supposed loss of those gender roles, in what almost amounts to a backlash mentality. In the post-show discussion of I’m not Rappaport at Downstage last year, an elderly woman tentatively asked – amidst sniggers – when there would be a play with old women as its subject. The source of the sentiment behind this comment is all the more recognisable with Hall’s latest edition. The writer chooses four men, and gives them a shelter, a joining place “after a history where ‘male bastions’ were increasingly denied them.” The pretence of this being a genuine awareness of gender roles however, rather than a chummy submission to the dominant appeal of male protagonists (especially within humour) is lost with the idea that these four, guarded characters have been actively denied a place of gendered dominion in society; similar to the cries of protest at the opening up of “men’s clubs.” It is this reinforcement of the norm that the paternalistic Edwin Davis (Ray Henwood) or the outright chauvinist Leo Maddox (Peter Hambleton), fresh from the ‘male bastion’ of the rugby ground, both prove.

We do however glean much from these characters, external to the device of humour and in spite of a lack of sympathy in some cases. These are the everymen, and their struggle with a mind-boggling loss of dignity – in a society where dignity is so highly valued – is heart breaking to say the least. Through the character of Mary (Jane Waddell), and the asides of her husband Charles, we consider the question of where human identity resides. Her once highly astute partner, a fellow history professor, is now rendered incapable of communication through a stroke. Does the lack of a mental, verbal connection mean the loss of a loved one altogether? Likewise, the question of inherent morality is raised when characters, married and otherwise, embrace sexual relations with those around them in the home.

The increasing and common randiness of rest home occupants is a phenomenon widely acknowledged, and Hall bravely mines this aspect of old age for humour, too. The Alzheimer’s potter Alan Webster (played with memorable opacity by George Henare) has lost all inhibition with regards to sexual expression, and is in courtship with someone from ‘upstairs.’ Allan’s one dimensional wife, Sarah (Jane Waddell), is used to this behaviour and is complicit with him in his final acts of enjoyment; a flat character exploration but nonetheless quite apt in a world where, seemingly, morals become vague and are sometimes lost with the passing of mental awareness.

Ken Blackburn’s character Charles Benson is forever begrudging his final resting place of New Zealand. A British migrant – like playwright Hall – he never planned to stop over in Aotearoa; his positioning here was ‘temporary.’ Perhaps through this character Hall intends to emasculate the kiwicentrism of this other characters and highlight the shortcomings and trials of New Zealand culture; of which, of course, there are many. Instead the complaints of Charles come through by and large as unexplained and whingy; meaning he is a less attractive character, and we miss out on Hall's legendary cultural insights.

Peter Hambleton’s Leo is the vulgar former All Black, and Hambleton pushes his character forward with gusto, while unfortunately straining some words and expressions with the effort. Credit must be given to Hambleton for his tackling of yet another undignified and challengingly embarrassing (for some) role, hot in the pajama steps of his Who Needs Sleep Anyway? character Baby P.

Costuming by Gillie Coxhill descends into parody with the ‘free spirited’ potter from Coromandel, dressed in a blatantly stereotyped tie dye outfit. But perhaps she was just working with the script. Lighting design by Marcus McShane captures and alters the mood of the play in many subtle moments, providing a Virgil like send off in the final hour.

Squeezed into a variety of supportive roles, Jude Gibson and Jane Waddell offer bright and brief interludes in the dialogue of the geriatric quartet. Jude Gibson as Regina Rest Home manager Elaine is as efficacious and a little woolly; as busty activities coordinator Gloria she playfully presents a model of big breasted fantasy. Only in the role of Debbie does her tone become a little too cutesy and nauseating to swallow. Waddell likewise is effective and believably conflicted in the role of Mary, the wife of Charles. Together with Waddell’s other character Sarah she mines the doubt and guilt of these women who have admitted their husbands to care. Only Gibson’s character of Sharon hints at the more sinister side of the rest home, subverting her role of mother and turning into an abuser. The intensity of her scenes with Henare leaves the audience hushed and suitably uncomfortable.

Roger Hall astutely regionalises his plays for a good dose of parochial pride wherever they play. Jokes about Kapiti cost traffic and the ever maligned ‘Palmy’ feature much in the show which opened in Auckland. Wellington audiences looking for a funny but not necessarily cathartic or inspiring play have plenty of time to make it along before the jokes run out, or turn into digs about the capital city itself.