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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Theatre |
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Roger Hall’s Who Wants to Be 100?

At 16 I saw Roger Hall’s A Way of Life. It was good – about New Zealand but never parochial, expansive in its material, full of tense moments and great dialogue. Robyn Malcolm was in it. That play sold me on the brilliance of Robyn Malcolm long before Outragous Fortune made it okay to adore the woman. It sold me on Roger Hall. I went into Who Wants to be 100? knowing that at 23 I’m not exactly within the target demographic for a play about four old men and an old age home. But I was optimistic about Hall, about his ability to take something rather ordinary and make it speak to a wider audience than the over-sixty fivers.

What I got was a script that pressed the easy buttons as hard as possible. It played the humour of Alzheimer’s jokes (What’s so great about Alzheimer’s? You can throw your own surprise party…) against the hard reality of a life that falls apart because of the debilitating disease; it played jokes about gas, dated one-liners and, like a parody of itself, let a lot of the humour centre around a stock old man who tells dated jokes to his mates while they roll their eyes. But Saturday’s crowd (those silver foxes and salt n’ pepper haired Karori women who constitute the hearty majority of the Circa posse) seemed to relish the comedy. The old age home setting created that obvious dramatic balance between comic relief and serious heartstring- yanking.

When Hall’s writing drops the monologues and lets the action and dialogue speak for itself moments of brilliance shine through, recalling why it is that he owns a place as one of New Zealand’s greatest (or most commercially successful) playwrights. A scene in which the old folk play a game of over-sized snakes and ladders with a massive inflatable dice exemplifies this talent, subtly letting what appears an enjoyable and humorous moment carry the show’s darker tones. The story is really about the reduction of lives. It takes four human characters (the lawyer, the history professor, the ex-all black, and the old philandering artist) and pits them against the de-humanising, infantilising and depressing world of the old-age home.

In a character-driven play with a flat set, the performances, particularly by George Henare as the perpetually confused, oversexed, eternally homesick Alan, are as strong as you’d expect from the experienced cast. Ken Blackburn’s timing as stroke victim Charles delivers the laughs as he maximises the role’s potential for comedy. The two female members of the cast admirably juggle the task of slipping among characters as they manage multiple peripheral roles. It’s in these peripheral roles that we see Hall’s gesture toward issues of class, of spousal guilt, of familial love. Hallmark stuff, but delivered without enough wit, zeal or originality to make this show a standout in the sea of fantastic theatre that has been available this month.

Roger Hall’s Who Wants to Be 100?
Directed by Ross Jolly
Feb 23rd 8.00 pm.

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