By Bojana Novakovic and Mark Winter, with Thomas Henning; Directed by Tanya Goldberg
Presented by Silo Theatre and Ride On Theatre | Basement Theatre, Auckland | November 4-29
Hearing the word improv is enough to send a person running away from theatres as fast as their legs can take them. The phrase ‘long form improv’ probably never occurs to people, but if it does, I can’t imagine it would be an appealing thing. However, The Blind Date Project is the best possible example of both these things, albeit in a tremendously structured and crafted way.
The premise is deceptively simple. One woman, Anne (Natalie Medlock), is going on a blind date in a karaoke dive bar. There’s no script. Medlock has no idea what actor is going to be playing the blind date each night, and of course it is a different actor each night. Medlock and the actor are directed by Tanya Goldberg, the director, through texts and phonecalls throughout the show, and we are guided through the blind date for an hour or so.
It’s an appealing premise for a show, and with a performer as talented as Medlock, it’s an incredibly engaging hour of theatre. Her Anna is an entirely believable creation, someone we’d walk past on the street or run into at a bar, and Medlock’s own gift for comedy and quick wit sharpens the character so that we never see her flounder. She’s always ready for the next line or the next beat, and never lets us into the fact that we’re seeing her say these things for the first time. At times she seems almost terrifyingly infallible—her Anna stays calm when many people would freak out—but she weaves even this into the character. The show wouldn’t work without Medlock’s incredible performance, along with her quick responses to everything that the show, the other actor, and the director throws her way.
I was lucky enough to see the show twice, completely by fluke, and it revealed the structure of the show in a beautiful way. The first time I saw Nic Sampson play an apparent cult escapee from Hastings, with disarming vulnerability and wicked comic timing, while the second time I saw Curtis Vowell play a recently divorced man trying to find a place for his dog to stay, also played with disarming vulnerability and a more subtle comic edge. The dates followed similar trajectories, which I’m chalking up to a similarity in characters rather than any formula within the show, but I was struck with how distinct the other actors’ characters were. There were tricks and techniques used in the show to give us more an idea of the character, like a game that Anna uses to find out more about the date, but even so, both these actors came in with a concrete idea of their character and this unfurled beautifully over the date.
The show is awkward, but it finds a unique beauty in that awkwardness. When it’s funny, it’s also heartachingly real. When it’s real, it’s often painfully funny. This show gets that these extremes usually come hand in hand, and without trying to get in the audience’s heads or make them think, it makes us feel like we’re watching something profound. And honestly, quite often we are. It’s a rare experience to see two strangers meeting for the first time, and a rarer experience to see two actors exploring their characters and their goals in real time in front of us. The Blind Date Project captures these moments in a way that no other show I’ve seen has, and deserves, to be commended for it.
These moments come from the intense structure of the show, which becomes more apparent on a second viewing. While initially Tanya Goldberg’s exits were irritating, especially with how The Basement is not at all designed for quick or quiet entrances and exits, on a second viewing it became clear that the obviousness of them was a part of the show’s structure. Being constantly reminded of the show’s mechanics and the fact that it is a show keeps the audience in the piece rather than constantly searching for the actors to drop their characters and wait for them to slip-up.
Two elements of the show that are hard to put into a review are the design and the third character, a bartender played by Bryony Skillington. The set design, courtesy of bravura team Celery Productions, is one of the best sets of the year. The Basement is entirely transformed into a karaoke dive bar, complete with old posters, cheap looking spirits, and cheap-looking tinsel behind the mic. It looks exactly like a bar, while simultaneously being both the best bar and the worst bar you’ve ever been in. It’s exactly the bar you would go to for a blind date, so you wouldn’t see anybody you knew. Skillington is practically a part of the set, and I mean this in the best possible way: she is entirely comfortable as the bar manager, and provides a convenient reset button lest the date go particularly awry.
The Blind Date Project, as conceived by Bojana Novakovic and Mark Winter, with Thomas Henning, is a brilliant piece of theatre. It pushes the boundaries of what the medium can do while remaining an entirely relatable piece of art, and it’s a testament to both Silo Theatre and Ride On Theatre that it not only came to our shores, but to the perfect venue that is The Basement. Uniquely hilarious, gutbustingly human, and stunningly brave.
* * *
By Chris Parker and Thomas Sainsbury
Directed by Rachel House
Basement Theatre, Auckland | December 4-20
The Basement Christmas show is a highlight of the theatrical year; an annual celebration of the venue, the people that populate it, and the big names willing to donate their time to keep it open. Last year’s A Basement Christmas Carol was a triumph, taking the classic It’s a Wonderful Life-archetype and funnelling it through ridiculously catchy pop tunes and some spot-on celebrity cameos. Other than the celebrity cameos, Hauraki Horror could not be more different.
Hauraki Horror is in that genre that has long since been a favourite of dinner theatres throughout the world: a murder mystery. Writers Tom Sainsbury and Chris Parker play two aspiring paparazzi who sneak themselves onboard a celebrity cruise—that is, a cruise full of celebrities—when suddenly one of them is murdered. The pair take it upon themselves to find out who did it, and things get expectedly hairy and hilarious.
The delight and appeal of these Christmas shows is the rotating cast. There is a different set of actors playing the cameos each night, which allows for some inspired casting choices. On opening, Rose Matafeo got to give a committed, back-row-playing performance as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, while Barnie Duncan got to give his low energy, high comedy stylings to a transgendered Kelly Tarlton. Sainsbury and Parker clearly have a love for the New Zealand celebrity in all its Henderson glamour and Remuera bleakness, and the jokes that hit hardest are the ones that relate to our more timeless celebrities. Jokes at the expense of Sally and Jaime Ridge are less successful; they’re not as specific as they could be, and these parts of the show sag a little as the actors are forced to riff on the same jokes with different phrasings.
It’s hard to be critical of the Basement Christmas show, any year. It only has to be fun, be funny, and give people a little bit a joy at the end of the year. Hauraki Horror is successful in this front, especially in the second half when all the plot is set up and it’s a dash to the end. The set is also a wonder to look at, a cross-section of a budget cruise ship with some impressively versatile automated doors. As the central duo, Parker and Sainsbury are also generally delightful to watch, and they both bring their own oddball energy to the stage, which is an odd choice to anchor the show, but eventually pays dividends.
Hauraki Horror is a successful Christmas show for The Basement. It’s a low-stress way for an audience to go to the theatre and be sure that they’re in for a hilarious time, seeing famouses and non-famouses alike make fools of themselves. At the end of a pretty great year of theatre, what more can you ask for?