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March 24, 2014 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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In Review: Once We Built a Tower

Once We Built a Tower is the latest in a run of brilliant Bacchanals productions lighting up the Wellington scene. The element which shone throughout this and several other recent productions by the same company – The Clouds, Gunplay, All’s Well that Ends Well – is the witty and engaging spirit of the cast. The script itself, written for this production by Dean Parker, is a wordy and repetitive one; however, moments of real joy were found in the set design and manipulation, and the joyful play between the ensemble actors.

The narrative follows “the building of the Waitaki hydro-electric dam near Kurow in the late-1920s and how its revolutionary medical scheme helped the 1935 Labour government create the Welfare State we take for granted today” (thebacchanals.net). Although this made for a challenging and relevant piece of theatre (it is, after all, election year), this political theme did weigh heavy in the atmosphere of the theatre, and was driven home a little too hard during our second act. What began as heartening political common-sense campaigning by likable, charming characters, slowly became scene after scene of frustrating political warfare which, although realistic, was, for one audience member, “a bit too shouty”. Although the themes and messages were of value, towards the end of this two-hour production, the atmosphere descended into chastisement over provocation, a fault which I think lies primarily in the script, but still let down this brilliant production.

The set, consisting almost entirely of old suitcases, was clever, versatile, and made for beautiful scene transitions and play between actors as they threw them back and forth, built their homes and a dam from them. This basic set was brought to life by the beautiful voices and instrumental music of the players throughout, which appears to be a common theme in Bacchanals productions, making them an absolute joy to watch.

Our protagonists – Kirsty Bruce as Ethel McMillan, Alex Greig as Dr Gervan McMillan, Brianne Kerr as Frances Nordmeyer, Michael Trigg as Arnold Nordmeyer, and Michael Ness as Michael Joseph Savage – served us well with consistent, energetic and often comedic acting, which helped the pacing of this wordy piece. The supporting roles, from Alice May Connolly, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Hilary Penwarden, Charlotte Pleasants, Jean Sergent and Aidan Weekes, were fantastic as always, with charming play, quick wit, clear delivery, and a great sense of enthusiasm in their performances. It is not often that in a production where you watch four separate actors poo on stage, the air is still endearing, especially given that we watch another cast member shovel their wares away immediately afterwards.

This is not your last chance to view this production, however, as there are murmurs of an upcoming tour of the show, which I would recommend to any politically minded theatre-goer as a tight, charismatic piece by a well-respected company. Overall, this show was interesting and compelling, primarily due to the skill of the players, and the endearingly small-time beginnings of the protagonists. Pre-show and interval entertainment was jubilant, and special mention must be made of the hilarious performances from Brianne Kerr, Michael Trigg and Jean Sergent in these breaks and throughout the show. Musicians Ellie Stewart, Hilary Penwarden and David Lawrence were wonderful to listen to, and added to the production without distracting from the main action, which is a credit to any ensemble.

 

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