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June 19, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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Larger Than Life — Chris Rex Martin & Tainui Tukiwaho

At one point during Larger Than Life, Te-Whakakotahitanga-o-Ngā-iwi-o-Te-Motu Boy-George Jackson (the full name of Tahi, played by Shadrack Simi) calls his lost love to stage in order to serenade them. The problem is there are only three actors onstage during Larger Than Life, and all are intimately involved with the performance of aforementioned serenade. The devised solution to this is to beckon a participant from the audience to act in the old flames place. The woman, although a little uncomfortable and worried looking at first, is won over by Shadrack Simi and Brady Peeti’s gentle singing, until she starts swaying, then singing along, until she’s met by rapturous applause at the end of the set-piece (as well as a cheeky kiss on the cheek from Chris Rex Martin, the third performer who chose her out).

It doesn’t have much effect on the plot, but it does act as a kind of self-contained metaphor for the audience’s own experience during Larger Than Life. Although I, and I assume a few others, came to Larger Than Life unsure of what would happen, worried about if it would turn out to be more of a family-friendly affair rather than something that would keep even the surliest of millennials (myself included) entertained, the Te Rēhia Theatre company masterfully wove a story rich in belly laughs, political satire, Pākehā and Māori anxieties, and even an appropriately emotional ending.

And dick jokes. A lot of very good dick jokes.

The elevator pitch (although I’m inclined to give as little away as possible) is that “Larger Than Life” is actually the moniker of E-Honda, Tahi, and Rua, three Māori youth from the rural heartland of the North Island, and that the stage show is actually the first comeback show from Ngaruawahia’s third-best childrens novelty act from the ’80s. They sing and spin their tall tale of their first big break, an epic trip to Wellington in order to support the legendary John Rowles. The brilliant opening, showcasing a linguistic mix of comedy, a clear clash in personalities, and one very broken stage prop perfectly sets the tone for the evening’s proceedings. From there, the content gets even more creative — nothing is off limits, with Robert Muldoon, “those red stickers on cars,” apartheid, New Zealand media, and Pākehā claiming Māori heritage are all targets for ridicule. The songs cross an even broader range: from an ode to a dying sheep to a plea to mothers cooking.

It would be jarring or unconvincing if it wasn’t for the usually excellent performances from the the trio: Simi & Peeti embody the divas perfectly, each with their own set of unique quirks and motivations (“I want to be the gayest!” is a punchline that lingers long after the curtain falls). Their long-suffering, guitar strumming brother E-Honda has the hardest job: playing the straight man, the comic relief, the antagonist, and the lovable younger brother all at once. It doesn’t always payoff — when stood next to the incredibly animated performances of his fellow actors, sometimes his delivery of key comedic or political lines can come off understated or in a manner that deems them unimportant before they’ve even been spoken.

He is also tasked with being the voice of political reason, and this is where the usually excellent writing also suffers. The political content is shoehorned into short monologues and spoken at breakneck pace, meaning the audience miss most of the content, and when it’s almost entirely devoid of jokes, it feel uncomfortably preachy, which might turn a few non-liberal fans off (then again, this is Wellington we’re talking about). The use of a few words — “cancerAIDS”, one n-bomb — may turn heads, and not in a good way. Then again, as they say at the end, their intention is to push the envelope, and move towards the discomfort. The storyline satirising Pākehā exploiting Māori talent and legend for their own financial gain is far more effective, and it’s brilliance is that it does not explode into offensive name-calling until the peak of the action.

The twist ending may turn a few heads as well. The complete leftfield direction the piece takes in the last ten minutes is incredibly affecting, but it does also feel rather out of step with what came before it. Although I admit when I heard at the end that the piece was still in development I was a little surprised, as it feels in no way a show done by half measures. Te Rēhia Theatre have created a show rich in content, that leaves you feeling not stuffed with pretentious or overly-serious songwriting, nor starved of laughter. Sure, it’s not the full 47 K-Bar and 15 Big Mac spectacular that the fictional Larger Than Life team would be satisfied with, but it is a refreshingly honest and earnest production that the real-life Larger Than Life team should be proud of.

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