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March 15, 2004 | by  | in Theatre |
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Spreading Out

New Zealand International Arts Festival
By Roger Hall
Directed by Ross Jolly
Circa until March 20th

Over a quarter of a century ago, Roger Hall wrote a play that established him as one of New Zealand’s foremost playwrights and profoundly changed the way that Kiwis look at themselves. Middle Age Spread, first performed at Circa in 1977, is the story of three middle-class couples with middle-class values, middle-class goals and middle-class problems. When Colin and Elizabeth host a dinner party, what should have been an innocent evening becomes mired in controversy as it is revealed that Colin has been having an affair with guest Judy, while teenage daughter Jane is pregnant to the son of guests Reg and Isobel. This intelligent, sharp comedy holds a position of immense esteem in the canon of New Zealand theatre. Now, in 2004, comes its sequel.

Spreading Out tells the story of Colin, Elizabeth, Reg, Isobel and Colin and Elizabeth’s children Jane and Roddy as they are today. Now retired and living on a lifestyle block in the Wairarapa (Middle Age Spread is set in suburban Wellington), Colin and Elizabeth gather with their family on New Year’s Eve. Excitement is in the air – slacker Roddy is home from several years doing something heavy-debt-inducing overseas, Jane’s daughter Megan is making a surprise trip from London, while Jane, now a doctor, seems to be keeping something from her parents. In the midst of this arrive, unannounced, Reg and Isobel, unseen by Colin and Elizabeth in almost 20 years, in the thick of marital crisis… and unaware of the imminent arrival of the granddaughter they have never met.

Delightfully, Hall and Jolly wooed Grant Tilly, Dorothy McKegg, Ray Henwood and Jane Waddell – the original cast of Middle Age Spread – back for another round. Peter Hambleton (Roddy) and Perry Piercy (Jane) played Colin and Elizabeth in a 2001 production. These six, all of them eminent members of our theatre community, are excellent, their comfort with Hall’s material and each other bringing a certain warmth to the set. Hall’s whip-smart dialogue flows naturally from their lips, and the sharp observations of middle-class New Zealand are still there. Among the funniest are those on family values. “Oh,” wails conservative Elizabeth to her globe-trotting granddaughter, “a partner’s not the same as a husband!” Jane is philosophical about her own relationship troubles. “You know how women are supposed to lie back and think of England? I came to realize that Jeffrey was lying forward and thinking of Rock Hudson.”

However, at the core of Spreading Out is the understanding that New Zealand is not what it was in 1977, and that the middle-class is not long for this world. The setting is a subtle indicator of this – while Colin and Elizabeth are retired from the less-than-lucrative positions of teaching and housewifery, their Wairarapa wine-growing haven is worth over a million dollars. “Ah, the three topics of New Zealand conversation,” notes the acerbic Reg, “house prices, Asian migration and pinot noir.” Elizabeth loudly bemoans the tendency of the younger generation to career hop – “Just one was enough for us!” – and laments, along with Isobel, the fact that most of her family are based overseas.

Of course, while Hall’s script is excellent, material like this needs a delicate directorial touch. Too heavy, and it will sound laboured and soap-boxy. Too light, and the message will not come through. Pre-eminent New Zealand director Ross Jolly handles this perfectly. The characters are rounded and human, profound statements timed so that they allow the audience to register them, but still sound conversationally apt. Physicality also plays an integral role in the humanizing of these characters. Some of this is humorous – Colin’s rigorous wine-tasting ritual, applied to almost every sip, or Isobel’s elaborate display of the clothes and jewellery that she sells from her craft shop on the Gold Coast – but others are effective in their subtlety. When Reg, for example, tells Colin that he and Isobel are “not so much a marriage as an economic union”, the comedy is muted behind his hunched shoulders and resigned tone. The comic awkwardness of Isobel’s first meeting with her granddaughter is mitigated by real tears, while a “man-hug” between Colin and Roddy at the play’s close is both funny and truly tender.

In a play characterized generally by a superb script, cast and director, the one disappointment in Spreading Out is Nikki MacDonnell, playing Megan. Her acting is fine, but a little over-the-top, particularly her facial expressions when she is not speaking. Few of Hall’s best lines are reserved for this character, who has by far the least stage time, but those that are, are not afforded the sensitivity to timing that such fine material deserves. Still, this hardly puts enough of a blight on the play – if anything, MacDonnell is eminently ignorable – to stop me from recommending it unreservedly.

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