Written by: Roger Hall.
Directed by: Ross Jolly.
Cast: Donna Akersten, Catherine Downes, Tim Gordon, Peter Hayden, Carmel McGlone, Matthew Pike, Elena Stejko, & Jane Waddell.
Circa One, 17 April, 6:30 pm.
I saw Roger Hall’s new play, A Shortcut to Happiness, when it opened the first season at the new Court Theatre in Christchurch. I remember thinking at the time that I felt rather ripped-off (even though I hadn’t paid for the tickets) because there was very little to recommend the production. It was with these memories that I went to a Tuesday night’s performance at Circa. And what a pleasant surprise I had; the two productions were so different it was as if they did not use the same script.
The major reason for the excellence of this production, directed by Ross Jolly, was that it was not played for laughs. Instead, we got the sense that both Natasha (Stejko) and Ned (Hayden) were fully invested in the relationship and the humour came from the juxtaposition not only of two very different cultures – with their attendant language and accent difficulties – but also the difference in ages between the two protagonists. In the post-show forum, Jolly described his rationale for directing the production was that playing comedy “seriously” – or, as Charles Ludlum would have it: “comedy, now that’s serious business” – heightens the comic value in a script. This is particularly so when the script a director and actors work with has little intrinsic humour.
The action of the play centres squarely on the relationship between Natasha and Ned; theirs is the first relationship we see and half the scenes are set in Ned’s house. Both actors played the same roles in the Dunedin premiere and this previous experience of the roles provided a solid foundation on which the actors built for Circa’s production. The actors playing the remaining characters – who amount to little more than foils for Natasha and Ned – did an admirable job of fleshing out these foils. There was, however, one exception in the form of the combined presence of Janet (Downes) and Laura (Akersten). When these two actors were on stage together they were overcome by a desire to slap each other’s various body parts – knees, elbows, shoulders – or clap gleefully. This habit was pure irritation. What was more annoying is that they portrayed interesting, credible characters when not sharing scenes but when they did the two actors resorted to this, quite simply, bizarre behaviour.
There is a particularly troubling aspect in A Shortcut to Happiness. Namely, the way it justifies the Kiwi internalised racism. In essence it absolves us of guilt when we exhibit those mild, yet no less destructive, racist views by saying: “this is ok because look at this pretty Russian lady, she’s racist too!” The moments of squeamishness are, thankfully, few and far between. Ultimately, the play is more of a fairytale in which a not particularly special widowed pensioner can fall in love with a young, beautiful, exotic (but safely so) woman. Interestingly, the target audience for this production is primarily of the same demographic as Ned. However, the production also shows the trials that immigrants face when they move to New Zealand and are unable to carry out the jobs for which they have trained – Natasha qualified as a teacher in Russia but needs to pass an international English exam to teach here– so have to make do by teaching dancing classes and cleaning houses.
We all deserve our own shortcut to happiness. Natasha and Ned find theirs through the mediation of dancing. This production can, if it does not provide lasting happiness, give a glimpse at the trials of other’s. Seeing that the happiness of others is contingent gives us at least a little relief from our own sufferings. A Shortcut to Happiness‘s greatest gift, however, is a good evening’s entertainment. Although it may lack intellectual stimulation, it makes up for it in heart, soul, and warmth.
A Shortcut to Happiness runs until 26 May, Tuesday and Wednesday 6pm, Thursday to Saturday 8pm, Sunday 4pm. Tickets cost $46 (Adults), $38 (Students), $25 (<25s).