Holding On; Sophisticated Sinner

ARTS, Music, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Gavin McGibbon
Directed by Lori Leigh
BATS Theatre | August 28-September 8

The process of grieving is rarely as simple as moving through five stages, and Gavin McGibbon’s tragicomedy Holding On, currently at BATS Theatre, reveals counseling can be as dramatic as the events that send people there. The play opens with a vignette; Tessa (Kate Fitzroy) is pretending to be Pamala, a sex phone operator, and she fails to stop desperate loner, Barry from killing himself. The next we see of her, she’s straight into grief counseling.

It is around the counseling circle that our story begins. We meet Johnny (John Landreth), the “harmless, here for you bartender” who lives alone, Beth (Megan Evans), the picture of a dignified older woman, Eddie (Simon Haren), the young man plagued by guilt and grief for a dead child and Steven (Alex Greig), the leader of the group, and facilitator of everyone’s journey through the murky grieving process. Rounding out the cast is Emma Draper who makes the role of the bitchy fiancée, Carla, easy to empathize with, and young Billy (Christopher Buckham).

The plot unfolds as each member of the counseling circle drops their defenses and opens up, sharing their reason for joining. As sessions progress and the group get to know each other better (some carnally), and we learn their back stories. Secrets and lies of Grecian proportions are rife and, as with any great tragedy, the ending sees souls (and other body parts) bared. Holding On is no classical tragedy, though. It’s an investigation into how those fundamental elements of being human (grief, love, sex) negotiate their way around a trivial world dominated by TradeMe, bylaws, glad wrap, and autoerotic asphyxiation.

There is a lot going on in Holding On; McGibbon traces five stories of people engaging with personal tragedies while weaving comic commentary on modern life throughout. At an hour, forty-five without an interval, the narrative does become repetitive and double percussive, but its pitch-black comedy mostly keeps the audience engaged. An interesting aspect to McGibbons writing is his meta-comedy. Characters call each other out when they are overly verbose; “blunt,” “can you be a little less direct” and “that aside is so uncalled for when someone dies” are lines that add one-too-many layers of reference.

Tragicomedy is a curious genre. The play relies on an audience who can accept slightly absurd characters, then understand their pain while also taking a sadistic pleasure in it.  It also requires actors who can balance emotional conviction and comedic timing. In Holding On, these are characters who, despite their anxieties around ‘sharing’, experience an extraordinary range of emotions in quick succession. They profess love, threaten each other, and dream with surprising fervency, and everyone on stage negotiates the emotional peaks and troughs with precision and commitment.

The set (Penny Lawrence and Tania Ngata), three raised platforms and a rolling bar/table, is functional and well lit (Uther Dean), and scenes flow fluidly. Emotive music pulses underneath emotional moments, a devise borrowed from cinema that seems, at least to me, a touch double percussive.

Without the comforting acceptance the Kübler-Ross model promises, our characters do not satisfyingly resolve their grief, they just keep holding on.

*   *   *

Performed by Karen Anslow
Blondini’s, Embassy Theatre | August 23-September 1

Introduced to the small, enthusiastic audience as “the original sinner,” Karen Anslow takes to the stage at Blondini’s Bar. What follows is an 80-minute musical celebration of the great divas of the last century.

Seduction is the theme that structures her set list. Anslow takes us on a sensual journey, from those first desires with ‘I Want to be Evil’ and ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ to the tempting bad boys with ‘He’s a Tramp’ and ‘Whatever Lola Wants’. She tops off the first half with the delightful ‘Life of the Party’ from Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party. The second half kicks off musing on ex boyfriends with ‘Thinking of You’, then moves into those specialist desires with ‘Old Fashioned Love Story’, a song about the search for a good natured, old fashioned lesbian love story. The evening ends with Billie Holiday’s ‘Gloomy Sunday’, Vaya Con Dios’s ‘Don’t Cry for Louie’ and Burt Bacharach’s ‘A House is not a Home’.

Her wonderful set list is supported by her band (Tane Upjohn-Beatson, Alan Burden, Alistair McLeod and Sue Windsor), who perfectly capture the class of the era. Karen Anslow has a great voice, a well-pitched stage presence, and an incredible band. But that makes Sophisticated Sinner sound like a covers evening. It’s better than that. Sophisticated Sinner succeeds because it embraces and then recreates a bygone era, an era that championed vivacious sensuousness. Yes, the songs are great, but it’s the world around the music that is most seductive.

Rather than being hidden in a corner of a movie theatre, Sophisticated Sinner needs to be performed in a small, smoky bar. There is a definite audience for work that celebrates nostalgia and an authentic setting could be just the thing to complete the illusion.