ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_daffodilsBy Rochelle Bright
Arrangements by Stephanie Brown (LIPS)
Presented by Bullet Heart Club
Q Theatre, Auckland | March 13-29

Daffodils is a show that I feel entirely unqualified to review. It’s not because I don’t recognise the incredible talent on display or the work that has gone into putting it on—I do. And it’s not because I can’t use words to describe what I feel about it—I can—only most of them form incoherent rants to people to just see the show.

Why I feel entirely unqualified to review this show is because, as the lights went up on opening night, I felt like I was watching the birth of a new entry into the New Zealand theatre canon. And as the audience wiped away their tears and jumped to their feet to applaud the people involved, I knew everyone around me felt the same.

I don’t exaggerate when I say Daffodils is the best New Zealand show I have seen this year. It may be the best show made in this country that I have ever seen. When the dust settles, it might not be. I can’t say for sure. What I can say for certain is that this is an excellent show that deserves to be seen, and it deserves a long life, which I am confident it will have.

It’s a show that defies description, at least to me. The full title is Daffodils [inspired by true events], and it tells the story of Eric (Todd Emerson) and Rose (Colleen Davis), two teenagers who meet in a field of daffodils, and their whirlwind lives thereafter. It is the true story of Rochelle Bright’s parents, which at first glance might seem like an indulgence or a cheap selling point, but the closeness to the writer’s life is an integral part of the story. Without ever beating us over the head, it gives the show a sense of import and tangibility.

While Daffodils is a true—or a true-ish—story in terms of fact, it is also emotionally true. The brilliance of Daffodils is that it tells a story that is authentically New Zealand, whether you grew up in a five bedroom mansion in Remuera, or a three-acre house in Otorohonga. We have heard this story, and stories like it, at bars, in backyards, in garages, and lounges for years. Daffodils tells a story we’ve heard, but more importantly, a story we’ve lived.

It’s criminal to get this far into a review without talking about the music. While Daffodils implements a direct address style, with both characters telling us the story as it unfolds, it also features iconic New Zealand music that is sung throughout. It sounds awkward, but it’s the most natural and beautiful thing in the world when seen onstage.

The songs are arranged by Stephanie Brown, part of New York electro-pop act LIPS, and this is where I need to confess that I know less than nothing about music. But I know what I like, and I loved what was on display in Daffodils. With selections that take from Bic Runga, The Mint Chicks, Blam Blam Blam, and Crowded House, it is a kaleidoscope of our rich musical history fused with the story of these two lovelorn people.

Once more, this lends the play an air of truth. We’ve danced to these songs, sung along to them, cried to them. Daffodils is, once more, no longer just the story of Rochelle Bright’s parents, but our story too. The songs give the play a sneaky backdoor entrance into our hearts, and it pays dividends.

I’m six hundred words in and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this play and things to praise about it.

Todd Emerson and Colleen Davis are actors I’ve seen in productions before and who have astounded me. Emerson has been a stunning presence in projects as diverse as The Pitchfork Disney, The Brave, and most recently Songs for Guy, where he also got to show off some serious musical chops. Davis is a regular highlight on Auckland stages, stealing Auckland Theatre Company’s musicals away from the starry leads three years in a row (Cabaret, Little Shop of Horrors, and especially Chicago).

I can easily say neither actor has been better than they are here. Emerson lends Eric a thing that I’ve seen aimed for onstage, but so rarely captured: a New Zealand bloke who is still a real human being. Even more brilliantly than this, he shows how an open young man can turn into the New Zealand bloke that we end up seeing in beer adverts: reserved to the point of being comatose, and when emotions do come in, he has no way to process it. He captures this arc brilliantly, and he’s excellent in the moment as well. This is saying nothing of his voice, which from what I can tell is a versatile tool, projecting a wide range of songs without missing a beat or ever seeming unnatural.

On the other hand, Colleen Davis as Rose gives what I have to describe as the best performance by an actor I’ve seen in a long, long time. She is an alarmingly, frighteningly present performer, who captures the innocence of Rose and her heartbreaking shudders from girl to woman. It’s in her physicality; it’s in the way she modulates her voice, easing each word and phrase across to us like it needs help across the street; and most of all, it’s in her singing voice.

It’s no surprise to anybody who goes to theatre in this town that Colleen Davis has a great voice. But I’ve never seen her as on form as this. The titanic voice that belted out a Rangatira-shattering rendition of ‘If You’re Good To Mama’ is put to better use singing a range of New Zealand songs, and I won’t spoil which songs they are. There’s a moment about a third of the way into the play, and halfway through a song, where it was like watching somebody’s soul break permanently onstage. It’s one of the most transcendent things I’ve seen in a theatre, and it’s one I’ll never forget.

Davis recalls a Marilyn Monroe in her prime, which is not the lazy comparison it appears to be, I assure you. Though she is a gorgeous, striking blonde, it’s her vulnerability tempered with a striking intelligence and inner knowledge that made Monroe—and makes Davis—as great as she is. It’s a performance I wish I could see every night so I could capture every nuance and every choice in my brain and commit it to memory.

There’s so much more to praise about the play, whether it’s the brilliant projections courtesy of Garth Badger, the subtle but extremely effective lighting by Jane Hakaraia, or the brilliant band. I have to give credit to Dena Kennedy’s direction—there is so much going on in this play that if one element were out of line, the whole thing would fall down like a house of cards—and yet she keeps it as one beautiful, heartbreaking object.

You need to see Daffodils. Never has a show captured what’s at the heart of us as New Zealanders so eloquently and so effortlessly, and I’m still struggling to define what that is. There were moments where I felt myself onstage, even though I’m as far from either of the characters as anything. There were moments when I clutched for my companion’s hand, and she clutched for mine, as we struggled not to cry. And there was a beautiful moment when we all got to our feet and clapped. Never has a play deserved my standing ovation more.