By David Greig and Gordon McIntyre
Directed by Sophie Roberts
Presented by Silo Theatre
Q Theatre, Auckland | October 24-November 23
When I go to a Silo play, I expect emotional maturity, intelligence, and something that pushes theatre just a little bit (and sometimes even a lot) in a direction that I might not expect. They did it this year with a vivisection of a Maori family in Hui; they did it with the political machinations of White Rabbit, Red Rabbit; and they gave us world-class theatre with Speaking in Tongues. When I go to a musical, I expect to escape from the night for a few moments and be taken into another world, where the style is the substance and every emotion is so precisely and masterfully manipulated that everyone in the audience is feeling the same thing at the same time. Midsummer fulfilled both of these expectations, and then some.
For a musical, Midsummer is refreshingly low concept: it’s two people on the cusp of middle-age (my concept of middle-age may be a bit skewed) who meet on a drunken Friday night in Edinburgh and spend the weekend in various degrees of togetherness and intoxication. The characters given to us are archetypes: Helena (Aidee Walker) is a career-driven lawyer who is unsurprisingly a mess, while Bob (Dan Musgrove) is a low-level criminal with aspirations to be a little bit better than that. From that description, it seems like this should be the kind of show that gets a five night season at a venue nobody has heard of and disappears, but it’s the approach to this material, and the execution of it, that turns it into a highlight of the year.
The play, written by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre, moves through styles smoothly and without jarring. Helena and Bob sometimes narrate their own stories, sometimes narrate the other character’s stories, sometimes play characters in the other character’s stories, and sometimes even act out what is happening on stage. It’s a credit to both the writers and the performers that none of the play falters; it’s as strong and engaging when they are narrating what is happening as it is when they’re actually going through it. The play is more affecting, and intentionally so, when we see Helena and Bob experiencing the story rather than narrating it. However, a large amount of the comedy—and it’s some lowbrow, hilarious comedy—comes from their narration and approach to their own stories.
Aidee Walker and Dan Musgrove are ideal for these roles. Walker brings a bracing aggressive energy to Helena that appropriately fades in the second half, and she’s a charismatic presence that fittingly swallows the stage at point, we believe that Bob would fall for this woman and we fall for her too. We also fall for Bob, who could have come off slovenly but in the hands of Musgrove comes off as somebody who just is just a few steps to the left of making good choices. They both, at least to my ear, nail accents without making it seem like they are doing accents, and even sing really well in them.
As a musical, Midsummer is an interesting creature. It is billed as “A Play with Songs,” which is closer to what it is. There’s maybe fifteen minutes of music throughout the whole thing, and the songs tend to serve as humourous interludes and interjections. It’s not the kind of musical that needs an Idina Menzel or an Audra McDonald to belt it to the back row; it’s the kind of musical that needs actors like Walker and Musgrove to bring us in and make us love them with their unamplified, homey voices. Once is a lazy comparison but not an unfair one; the songs for the most part are breezy, but one close to the end is touching enough that I had to wipe my eyes just in case there was something there.
The design of the play is gorgeous, and is one of the prettiest designs I’ve seen this year. Rachael Walker’s set replicates the cobblestone feel of what I assume Edinburgh to be like, along with some painted-on puddles that looked so real I thought I’d stepped in one when I crossed to my seat. It’s dirty looking without being actually dirty, which suits the fairly light tone of the play. This isn’t Nil By Mouth or a gangster play; this is a play with songs. Jane Hakaraia’s lighting is unshowy, but isolates moments with delicacy. Again, it’s not a show that calls for massive spotlights for the act one closer; it’s one where grace and delicacy is more affecting than spectacle is.
It would have been easy for Midsummer to descend into farce, and a lot of the humour does tend towards the lowest of brows, but Sophie Roberts’s direction keeps it classy. Midsummer is never begging us for laughs; it remains throughout a play about two 35-year-olds trying to make the most of a bad weekend, and a life not lived to the best, and it’s all the more funny and engaging for that class. It’s one of the few plays this year that I could take friends my own age, but also take my grandmother to. It has a wide appeal, but is also intelligent and surprisingly introspective about two people on the cusp of middle age.
At the end of the year, one populated by numerous dark shows (not just from Silo), Midsummer is what an audience needs. It’s escapist, but it’s intelligent. It’s a musical, but it’s also a play. It’s a comedy, but you also might have a tear or ten. And it’s a great closer to Silo’s year, and any audience’s year too.