Fringe 2008, Paramount Theatre
Feb 12-March 1 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

CONNECT Productions’ Familiar Strangers leads its audience on a journey around Courtenay Place and its fringe. During our map guided walk we encounter diverse performers who inhabit these spaces. They are outsiders, fringe dwellers; the kind of people that you would normally avoid or ignore. But the message is that these people are valuable members of our communities, who can offer unique insights into living and loving in Wellington.

The performance begins at Paramount with a run-through of logistics. The audience is divided into four groups by being given a suit of cards and an arm band. We are issued with maps and instructions and advised to stay together and use pedestrian crossings. The groups then proceed to follow their designated route, visiting each performer in a different order. Promenade theatre on one of the city’s busiest streets would seem to involve a mass of logistics. However, the map and instructions prove easy to decipher, and we can usually pick out the performers well in advance – although it probably helps that our armbands make it easy for them to spot us.

The first person my group encountered was “Andrew”, a lonely old man, lost in an alleyway, determined to walk the streets of Wellington, map in hand, in order to make new friends after the passing of his wife. Barry Lakeman performs his character with an excellent mix of nostalgia, bewilderments and excitement. Our group warmed to him, and several people remarked that they hoped he would come back.

Then we interrupt the performance of “Richard” (Jack Shadbolt), a homeless harmonica-playing busker on Courtenay Place. He leads us around the James Smith/Duxton car park building, showing us his cathedral, the art work and his sleeping area before depositing us outside the City Mission. I wasn’t the only one who had no idea the Mission was situated down that alleyway. We emerge back onto Manners Street and cross to Pigeon Park where Nina Baeyertz performs as “Kit” in a scene entitled “The Island of Silent Echoes”. She draws our attention to the full range of phenomena that can be perceived by our senses in the central city – the sounds, smells and energy that we neglect to perceive. She’s most interested in how sound waves reach our ears and she draws us together for a demonstration of this.

After this we encounter an entirely different young woman, the bolshy Melody (Karen Anslow) who teaches us lessons in modern feminism (ie how to turn every game of sexual politics back to a woman’s advantage). This was one of the better scripted pieces, and we were laughing as she strutted off into a bar, giving a good sense of her story continuing past our interaction with her.

Then we left the streets for Waitangi Park, where a feisty German backpacker, Franke (Brooke Smith-Harris) interrupts contemplative Russian, Alexi (Jared Edwards) from his Foucault. This was the only scene in which we sat down and watched the actors in a more conventional way, instead of following (sometimes chasing) them. After the two new friends (lovers?) scamper off we encounter Alice (Jean Sergent) in a tree opposite Bats. Like Kit she encourages us to take in more of our surroundings by looking up once in a while. This is the most surreal encounter we have, as Alice recites poetry, performs a ‘magic’ trick and tells us stories until she gets confused and anxiously tells us we’d better go.

Next is Mere, played by Rapai Te Hau. She is singing “Nobody’s Child” when we come upon her, and this is apt as she is an abandoned child and dispossessed schizophrenic adult, who only finds some stability when she connects with her whanau and joins the h_koi. We leave her standing proud with the tino rangatira t_nga flag unfurled under the statue of Queen Victoria. Members of our group felt that this was the story that worked the least due to a lack of clarity and Mere often directing her speech to absent characters. However, Te Hau exudes a warmth that makes her no less likeable than the other familiar strangers we’ve encountered.

Finally we hear from the paranoid street worker, Wendy (Belinda Bretton) in a scene entitled “Neighbourhood Watch.” A girl has been murdered, and Wendy, who watches everyone and everything in her part of town, has a fair idea who the culprit is. Bretton is guarded in her performance, but goes to great effort to hold our eye contact past the point of comfort. She is also the most exposed of the performers, as her scene takes place on Courtenay Place, but she deals with onlookers well.

The scenes are devised by the performers and either director James Hadley or Rachel Lenart and are scripted by the actors. This has helped the actors really ‘own’ their characters, whilst the involvement of two directors means that overall coherency in the piece is not lost. Some more consideration could have gone into the final scene however – it seemed to just be an excuse for the actors to congregate and take a bow.

Familiar Strangers builds upon the successful Lovers of Central Park in last year’s Fringe Festival, breaking performance conventions in a similar way. Whereas Lovers had a more concentrated setting but many disconnected stories, I felt that Familiar Strangers had a far more interesting and coherent theme, provoking the audience to think about diversity and community. Highly recommended for those who want to see a show that is experimental, but still of high quality.