By Roger Hall; Directed by Ross Jolly
Circa Theatre | April 14-May 26
Like Chekhov and Shakespeare, Roger Hall has become a form of theatre. No longer do you go see a comedy; you go to see “a Roger Hall.” The program reads: “Roger Hall is New Zealand’s best known and most successful playwright,” and indeed audience members know (or know of) his work and is at ‘a Roger Hall’ ready to laugh. A Shortcut to Happiness is a prime example of why Hall deserves this title. The opening night audience is onside from the get-go; it is all too rare to see an entire auditorium collectively gasp in shock (at the price of a cleaning lady: $40 an hour?!) or vigorously nod their heads in agreement (at the crime focused content of our 6pm news).
A Shortcut to Happiness follows Natasha (Russian-born actress Elena Stejko), a recent immigrant who has set up a folk dancing class to raise money as she establishes herself in New Zealand. Her first class is on a Saturday night, and competes with the rugby. Luckily the kindhearted Ned (Peter Hayden) arrives anyway to inform her about this “very strange country,” and the dance class moves to Wednesday. With Ned’s help, Natasha encourages a group of lovable middle aged, middle class Wellingtonians to join up. And so the lessons begin.
Everyone is there for their own reasons. Ned is recovering from being widowed. Coral (Jane Waddell) is on the on the lookout for a new hubby. Janet (Catherine Downes) is celebrating time away from her husband with best friend, Laura (Donna Akersten). Bev (Carmel McGlone) and Ray (Tim Gordon) are adding to their extravagant hobbies list. As an eclectic group they work wonderfully, and Hall has crafted a superb spectrum of farcical characters that are instantly recognizable. Special mention must go to the officious Bev and silent Ray, mini marvels of domestic domination.
The social machinations of the aging bachelors and bachelorettes make up a significant portion of the plot. After each dance practice the stage revolves to Ned’s apartment where the group retires “for a drink.” Coral and Janet are on the prowl for a man, but Ned, the only bachelor, remains unaffected. He only has eyes for Natasha. Meanwhile Natasha continues to struggle with her English, her house cleaning, adapting to a new country, and her husband. Drama ensues.
Of course we want our two heroes to get together in the end, but the relationship does begin to get a touch Victorian. As Natasha continues to fumble over idioms, Ned constantly reminds her how much she has to learn and how vital it is that she ‘betters’ herself. Assumptions about social mobility bubble underneath the surface; how can a mere house cleaner be happy and content in life? Given, the play is a farcical comedy and not the final word on class in New Zealand.
A Shortcut to Happiness shows we cannot survive by just dancing through life. Hall acknowledges economic pressures on pensioners and the difficulties of living in a world so focused on money. But at its heart, joie de vivre triumphs and the play concludes with happiness all round. Ned’s claim rings true: “There are very few shortcuts to happiness, but dancing is one of them.”
The folk dancing, choreographed by Sacha Copland, is delightful and the wonderful set and lighting work together to create a slick production. A Shortcut to Happiness is a hilarious, life affirming celebration of our unique country.