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July 19, 2010 | by  | in Theatre |
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Young and Hungry 2010

Theatre

The Young and Hungry Festival of New Work has been running for 16 years and it’s stronger than ever. It was not long ago that it was the unerring trend of Young and Hungry for there to be one terrible play, one great play and one okay play. Usually in that order. Last year broke that cycle with three solid, watchable and very well-made works. The same can be said of this year. It’s great to see three good shows by young people, for young people. There is no real dud in this bunch, so season tickets are a must.

Song of Four (6.30pm)

In a worn-out day-after-tomorrow, the human race has lost the ability to reproduce. The dysfunctional group who hold the key to continuing the human race realise that the supposedly alturistic people who brought them together have a much more sinister agenda in mind. Old lovers with a lost child in their past are reunited.

While the points of comparison number about the same as the differences, Song of Four clearly owes a lot to Alfonso Cuaron’s tour-de-force film Children of Men. Starting with very similar concepts, where they differ is in the execution. While Men was harsh and immediate, Song is icy and distant. Men focuses very much on the philosophical implications of a world with no future, Song has a character that reads a book about philosophy. Men rushes forward all full of momentum, Song gets lost in uninteresting side plots and droops noticeably in the middle. Men reveals the unspoken past through glimpses and whispers, making its audience work to understand the world they’re meeting and the people they’re encountering. Song of Four foregoes such subtlety and gives everyone a good whopper of a speech or two to explain rather directly and clearly to the audience what is going on, what they feel about it and why they feel such feelings. In a play which should be about questions there are far too many answers.

This is not to say that Song of Four’s lack of depth is crippling. Many of its high points are when it throws itself whole heartedly into its broad strokes. The expositional news broadcasts are a particular delight, with actors Oscar Shaw and Alice Pearce giving marvellous and hilariously dedicated performances. The rest of the cast all acquit themselves admirably. Although the four leads, the four remaining fertile people in the world, do have an annoying tendency of falling into the same rhythm in all the scenes they share. Also, Vicki (Miranda Webster) has a propensity to yell at the top of her lungs, which becomes, at points, physically painful to hear.

Song of Four is far from a failure. It succeeds on its own terms, which is all you can really ask of art these days, but you have to wonder if its goal posts are set too low. Song of Four has an air of unearned self-importance. Its failure to explore or develop any real ideas more than hey wouldn’t it be funny for people to have sex on stage, drags it at points into self-indulgence. The wildly unneeded and mawkish (if very well executed) AV sequence compounds this even more.

Song of Four is well designed. You’re never bored and the people involved are clearly enjoying themselves and developing as theatre-makers. It just doesn’t have the guts to address itself on any worthwhile terms, and when you refer so heavily to a work that succeeds on just those terms like Children of Men, you’d have thought they’d have stopped screwing around and put some feeling into it.

Sick! (8pm)

Hannah (Alice Varcoe) is the Queen Bee at her school. Her posse is composed of the streetwise chessmaster ‘T’ (Acushla-Tara Sutton) and the recovering bulimic wannabe model Fleur (Emma Hayward). Together they take massive amounts of pleasure in tormenting their supposed friend Nalini (Anisha Parshottam), until the remarkably exotic Kilmineny (Lauren Gibson) shows up. Kilmineny is a master manipulator (part of me really wants her to take on Bond), and before the 50 minutes of Sick! is over, she has taken everyone for a ride.

Writers Ban Abdul and Antonia Bale have sewn together a pacey and loud explosion of a play. Paul McLaughlin’s tight direction means the energy drops and the focus never floats. Every note of the play is twanged to the highest pitch. Which is fine. Because Sick! is mental. Like crazy mental. Its characters talk in a jargon so crude and obtuse that it turns into poetry.

All five members of the cast have razor-sharp comic timing. You are too busy laughing at the joke-packed performance to really notice the pedestrian plot. Sick!’s only real problem sits in the moments when it tries to be more serious. When, rarely, it takes the mood down to lightly brush past some issue or other, it all falls apart a little. You have no sympathy for any of these characters, and why would you? They’re all, with the exception of the meek Nalini, clearly monomaniacal sociopaths. But since we don’t care about them, it is hard to take them seriously. Which is all fine, when so much of the play is there very much to entertain. But when it aims for somewhat loftier goals, when it asks us to care for them, it fails. The one exception to this being the scene shared between Nalini and her mother (Sutton), which is charming and endearing, if over long.

Sick! is slight. Some may even call it vacuous, but it moves at such a pace and the jokes have such a high hit rate that it’s easy not to care and just enjoy the ride.

Addendum—Many of my female friends who have seen Sick! have commented on how uneasy it made them due to how accurately it represented the all-girls high school environment. Which, put bluntly, makes me concerned for the psyche of most females.

Thinning (9.30pm)

Thinning tells the story of six friends who have just graduated high school and are celebrating by holidaying apple thinning in Nelson. Playing very much on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, this group of friends faces their collective (and individual) future.

Thinning comes from the highly acclaimed pen of Eli Kent—he wrote The Intricate Art of Actually Caring don’t you know, it’s kinda a big deal these days—and to be honest it does not really stand up to his wider body of work. His trademark ear for the music of modern speech is present, but often plays a little too loud with characters occasionally sounding as if they are trying and failing to do Eli impressions. The play begins with a promise to be messy, to reflect the mishmash of beginnings, endings and unanswered questions that this time of life brings. It, however, fails to hold itself to that gesture, wrapping itself up a little too easily for my taste.

The cast all do solid (if uninspired) work. The female cast especially struggle slightly to differentiate their characters from each other, which is not helped by them not really having much difference in how they are written. I honestly would have to spend the first few moments of each scene working out which girl was which. Jack Shadbolt does marvellous work as Isaac, the joker with daddy issues, but of course he would. He’s won a Chapman Tripp. What he’s doing in a Young and Hungry play is anybody’s guess.

Rachel Lenart’s direction is clean and lucid. She has clearly done a lot of work with the actors on the atmosphere of the work, and it has really paid off. Some oddly stilted blocking does mar some scenes, however.

The design is beautiful but seems to ignore the fact that there are people sitting in the first few rows of the audience, who, in some scenes, will get a severely restricted view. This is unfair on the audience members who sit there. There should be no “cheap seats” at BATS.

It seems like I’m being unduly harsh. So let me get one thing clear. Thinning is very good. Very, very good. You really should go. You’ll really like it. But both Kent and Lenart have done much better work elsewhere. Thinning does not meet the expectations that the names attached to it generate.

Song of Four
wri. & dir. Sarah Delahunty
perf. Miranda Webster, Oliver Humphries, Taylor Frost, Ana Harris, Charlotte Pleasants, Alex Rabina, Gabrilelle Berran, Oscar Shaw, Alice Pearce, Hannah Hollamey and Adam Goodall

Sick!
wri. Antonia Bale & Ban Abdul
dir. Paul McLaughlin
perf. Emma Haywood, Alice Varcoe, Acushla-Tara Sutton, Anisha Parshottam and Lauren Gibson

Thinning
wri. Eli Kent
dir. Rachel Lenart
perf. Nicola Morine, Clare Marcie Wilson, Zoe Towers, Lewis McLeod, Oliver MacIndoe, Jack Shadbolt and Stevie Wildewood

At BATS theatre
8 – 24 July 2010
book@bats.co.nz or (04) 802 4175

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About the Author ()

Uther was one of the two arts editors in 2009. He was the horoscopier and theatre writer in 2010. Alongside Elle Hunt, Uther was coeditor in 2011.

Comments (6)

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  1. Ally Garrett says:

    Hi Uther! I would like to add to your review how much I enjoyed the sexual coming of age storyline in Thinning. I thought this was so great, because nobody ever writes or directs lesbians like this. I thought it was subtle and gentle and it didn’t end neatly, and it was brilliantly awkward. I think this is one of the strongest points of the show in terms of how the young women were depicted, and I don’t even really think I am that bias because my girlfriend was in it. Personally, I was really stoked to see a coming out-ish story without an actual coming out, without an actual kiss and without any tears.

  2. Uther Dean says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ally. I agree largely with your comment and it was only space restrictions that stopped me addressing the stuff of it in the review itself.

  3. Sam says:

    Having only seen Thinning, I’ll comment on that. You say that the play wraps itself up too easy, I don’t know if we were watching the same play. The one i saw didn’t actually wrap up any particular story line and i’m pretty sure that was the point, perhaps you have some insight on this… Your comments regarding the lack of female character definition are pretty brief and i’d appreciate you justifying why that was, more so than just saying you couldn’t remember who was who, as I personally did not have this problem, neither did the people i went with or those I have discussed the play at length with. I’m glad the previous commenter, Ally addressed the sexuality story as i also felt this really deserved a mention and was one of the great moments in the play and low-and-behold, one of the female character stories. I will add though this is one of the few stories that has not treated a coming of age coming out story as a sexulised scandal or something that needs to be treated in relation to a crush or sex *yawn*.
    You comments about the cast trying and failing to do ‘Eli impression’s’ is insulting man and I feel you really need to justify this statement particularly as you are reviewing young people, many of whom are just stepping into this theatre world and probably are unaware of the currently politics or even Eli Kents name. Bit of a disappointing review, dismissive really. Lastly, yes, Shadbolt has been doing great, good on him, and good on him for stepping into a festival such as Young and Hungry to be part of a great play, rather than ranking his status against it as having possible been ‘too good’ for it.

  4. Uther Dean says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Sam. It’s cool to disagree, especially when we’re talking in terms of opinions as we are here.

    I’d like to make a few clarifications in response to your comment. This is, to be clear, not to rebut or deny your thoughts. Just to give my angle. Cool?

    First, unless there was some grave misunderstanding with ticketing – Yes. We were watching the same show.

    In regards to “it’s wrapping itself up too neatly”, with the exception of the storyline Ally addressed above, all stories ended with an implicit solution or ending point build into the implied future of the characters IMO. Resolutions do not have to be overt or vocal or spelt out to be present. ‘Thinning’, it felt to me, had the perfect in built ending point of the song around the bonfire with its brilliant question of ‘So, what now?’ Everything after that, to me, read as unneeded series of overly prescriptive endings. Basically, I just like my theatre more open ended than ‘Thinning’. Especially when you’re dealing with a time of life that is so inconclusive as that explored in the work. But, that’s just my taste.

    My issue with the female leads was not so much their performances or story arcs but that they spoke the same. I did not exaggerate when I said that I had trouble differentiating them. They all struck too similar a set of chords for my taste. Their dialogue, at many points, was almost interchangable. To the point where you could only really tell which was which when they were directly addressing their plotlines. I totally understand that this problem may have only been mine, but reviews are reports of subjective experience and I cannot deny mine.

    When I discussed the characters doing “Eli impressions” I was not referring to the performances but to the constructs within the script. The cast worked well to work away from it but that does not change that to my ear there were points in the script where it felt more like someone trying to write like Kent – the extended, colloquial mixed metaphors, the mundane-profound analysis of pop culture, etc etc etc – than Kent himself. He is still a young writer, an exceptionally gifted one at that, which means that he is still developing his voice, and here he is just playing a little too much to his previous spaces.

    The “Impressions” comment was not meant to be an insult to the cast. It was not meant to refer to the cast at all.

    My issue with the casting of Shadbolt is one that I think runs contrary to the very purpose of Young and Hungry. Y&H is for breaking people in, for giving first chances, for being a step between high school or uni and the big real theatre world. It is as much about process as it is about presentation. It is a learning experience and that there is at least one young actor out there who didn’t get a role because a Chapman Tripp winner – someone with no real need for Y&H as a learning experience like Shadbolt – was cast ahead of them is a real shame and against what Young and Hungry stands for.

    It is *not* dismissive, at least, I don’t think it’s dismissive to say that something or some people could do better. Kent’s success with the Playground Collective and Lenart’s success with Theatre Militia has created for both of them reputations, well-earned reputations for theatrical excellence. These people know what they are doing. And they do a fine job. ‘Thinning’ is a good play. I would see it again. But it is not as good as it could have been. It is not dismissive to say that.

    But anyway, Sam, it’s really cool you enjoyed the show and, once again, thanks for sharing your opinion.

  5. Sam says:

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Uther. Yes i agree that this is very much based on opinion but i am glad you clarified some of your comments that i think from face value appeared particularly offensive to the hard work that has been done by the cast and crew. They just needed to be fleshed out a bit.

  6. James Beavis says:

    Word limits, they are a bitch

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