Fringe 2009, BATS Theatre
February 22-25 | Reviewed by Kate Blackhurst

THE THREE VIGNETTES – two solos and a duet – in this evening’s entertainment are united by the rural theme. In his director’s note, Adam Donald states, “There is a thin line between mocking and commenting on rural New Zealand. We aim to be respectful and true to this sector whilst making a comedy which is largely at their expense.” I’m not sure this is entirely achieved as derision certainly outweighs compassion and there is a healthy dollop of typecasting served up.

A rolled ‘r’ and a mention of lamingtons was enough to get a rise out of Gore, where the men apparently smell of Brylcreem and Brut. A shapeless beanie and equally unattractive track-pants instantly represent the King Country, whereas the woman with pearls, moleskin trousers, brushed cotton shirt and polar fleece vest can only be from Canterbury. The fact that she drinks chardonnay heightens this stereotype.

The stage is well set with simple props, and dismantled by appropriately dressed stage-hands between acts, while the Kiwi music is recognisable as ‘iconic’ to anyone who has ever been to a rugby match in this country – Dave Dobbyn and Crowded House ad nauseum. Seriously, it’s all they play! The fence at the edge of the set throughout excludes us from the performance, but all three pieces address us directly, setting the actor in a state of isolation. The barriers are tangible and match those created verbally on stage.

Hay Dayz is a beautifully delivered poetic monologue, which is both funny and touching with hints of Alan Bennett. Tansy Hayden is Miss Centenary 1973 who learns that ‘It’s a hard road on the unsealed road to Gore’. She falls for William, captain of the Winton rugby team who ‘came over, all bleeding and sweaty’. She reminisces about their whirlwind courtship when he took her to his dad’s pub for steak and chips and they ‘talked and laughed about our families, our dreams for the future and the New Avengers.’ It’s all go in Winton.

She recounts their ‘first kiss, first time, first child, first fight…’ and brings us up to the present. William made her feel special – ‘You’ll be my beauty queen forever’ – until he runs off with the Speights Perfect Woman and her symmetrical face. Her subtle expressions and authenticity of feeling switch mood beautifully as she fights through hidden tears of pain and frustration. After causing a scene in the pub, she waits for William outside, but he doesn’t come after her. For all our sneering scorn, Hayden elicits our heartfelt sympathy as she sleeps in the chicken coop and confides in the sheep because ‘sheep don’t judge’.

In The Return of the Queen, farmer Sam Eagle (Asher Smith) lives in the King Country and he used to feel like a king with his farm, his wife and his dog which he loves in no particular order. He buried his wife ‘illegally I might add’ beneath the spreading oak tree which is now under threat as the developers move in to exploit the spin-off success of the LOTR tourism. He fights the tourists and would-be developers with sheep offal in the hobbit holes until he works out how he can in turn exploit them.

Smith transitions smoothly between the gruff farmer and the smooth-talking tour operator Murray Farquar, bringing an entirely different persona to each character. For all the obvious competence of the acting, however, this piece doesn’t hang well together. The Kiwi connection to the land, particularly as a burial ground, is made much of but there are distasteful elements that seem unnecessary. Although Sam is keen to defend ‘his’ land the question remains as to whom it belonged in the past? Are we just building layer upon layer of exploitation in the countryside?

Keep it Rural also addresses the issue of how best to make money from the land. In this two-hander, Marshall (Smith) and Rosemary (Hayden) Dooley have sold their Mackenzie country farm and Marshall has invested their money and his dreams in alpaca farming. He assures Rosemary that he is, ‘not talking small-town New Zealand – we have to bring alpaca apparel to the world.’ He talks affectionately to the prize-winning Bethany whom he hopes will get pregnant and produce more (female) alpacas for the future of the business. He states ironically, ‘It’s a man’s place to provide’.

Meanwhile, Rosemary abandons herself to her ‘rows and rows of roses’ and nostalgia. On the eve of their 26th anniversary, she invites her friends round for dinner but refuses to do a barbeque because her mother would turn in her grave at the thought. She’ll do a roast. She knows that things are bad financially – and she is bitterly envious of Bethany – but Marshall has hidden the extent of their financial failing from her. When her card is declined as she tries to pay for a latte (what else?), she cooks up a plan to avoid the humiliation of not being able to afford a joint of meat. It’s a well-acted piece but it’s all rather predictable and obvious.

So the moral of the stories seems to be that life in the country is defined by a curious relationship with animals and a lack of communication. People hide affairs, financial worries, dead bodies and above all, feelings. If we are to ‘keep it rural’ what are we preserving? Beauty pageants from the States, old English roses, and alpaca from South America? As there are no indigenous people in these skits, is the play trying to say that quintessential Kiwiana is borrowed from overseas? It is an eye-opening discourse on what makes grass-roots New Zealand and goes deeper than first impressions suggest.