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July 8, 2017 | by  | in Theatre |
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The First Time — Courtney Rose Brown, Rose Kirkup

The notebook that I use to write my criticisms and praises in during a theatrical production was left notably absent at the end of Courtney Rose Brown’s The First Time, and it was not simply a result of the stage lights being confined to five central spotlights. From an opening that introduces each character and their quirks perfectly within five minutes, to a bittersweet ending that feels more authentic than the usual emotionally manipulative fare from standard pieces of this nature, The First Time delights even as its characters despair, and left me too enthralled to properly write notes.

The production follows five young women at university through their presumably first time at therapy, although over the course of the sessions we find the characters undergoing plenty more firsts: first homosexual relationship, first hospitalisation, first house move etc. Although the framing device of counselling sessions implies a potentially melancholic, maudlin affair, the characters and writing injects a wicked side of black comedy into the proceedings.

Janaye Henry’s Te Rina stands out as an example of one of The First Time’s wonderfully subversive elements. Te Rina could be played as a pantomime villain or the jovial lower-class sidekick to the “main” actors, but instead she easily becomes one of the audience’s favourite characters as quickly as she admonishes them for judging her job at McDonald’s and her hairdressing ambitions. The writing plays on the stereotypes of each character, without outright ridiculing them, Jess’s (Ingrid Saker) “Hippy Vegan Lesbian” monologues being a memorable example.

The five characters are not constrained to the spotlights and to their own stories, although at first they all seem completely unrelated — they end the play as a tight knit group of friends/siblings/classmates. Jess and Mereanna’s (Trae Te Wiki) relationship feels genuine, as does their the relationship with the mildly (!) disapproving Te Rina. Alana (Iris Henderson) and Elle’s (Courtney Rose Brown — not only the excellent playwright, she provides a star performance too) storylines are more isolated, but I might even like them better because of that. Both are given space and time to tell their own stories as they don’t have to force in too many connections to others, and it pays off dividends through their performances: one full of anger and insecurity, one dominated by the growing and uncomfortable influence of another man, both wonderful. The most prominent expression I can remember from those I spoke to in the reception afterwards is that they “saw themselves” in parts of the five characters, and there’s not much higher praise for a play centred around making the stigmatised sympathetic.

It is no small feat that with each of the five unique characters, all with their different relations to subplots and to each other, the plot-lines and plot-points don’t all get too tangled and caught up in each other. The symphony of experiences is not yet pitch-perfect: the aftermath of a moment where one character’s arm gets broken in three places as the result of a strangely liberating motorcycle accident is not felt, with nobody mentioning her assumed hospitalisation. While there are lots and lots of monologues (as you would expect from a play based around counselling sessions), the moments where Brown allows her characters to hold their tongues are even more beautiful: images of Jess crouched, mute, behind her chair, and Mereanna’s quiet breakdown, lit only by a blue backlight, stay in the mind even when some of the dialogue fades.

But these are small and admittedly insignificant gripes in the context of a wealth of talent, expressed in writing, staging, and not least in the acting of The First Time. It is honest, raw, moving, gut-bustingly funny, dark, light, to the point where writing this days later I’m running out of compliments to describe it. Just go see it, please.

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