Te Karanga, K’Rd Auckland
March 27 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

SMACKBANG THEATRE is an example of the No. 8 wire mentality: if it needs doing, do it yourself with what’s available and bit of the old Kiwi ingenuity. It’s a new theatre running on Thursday nights in a corner of the rather cosy art gallery/teahouse/radio station/tattoo studio run by the Te Karanga Trust on K’Rd.

The story of Smackbang started when four theatre practitioners (Gabrielle Rhodes, Tainui Tukiwaho, Jared Turner and Charles Unwin) got tired of the paltry acting opportunities being offered to ‘emerging artists’ on the underfunded Auckland scene and decided to create their own. They started with a playwriting competition (PlayRight, now in its third year) and this year have started a new theatre company with the lofty ambition of presenting one new play every week, for one night only. For $10 punters can see high quality theatre, admittedly produced on a shoestring budget, but often featuring a talented cast.

My Night With Reg, by British playwright Kevin Elyot, is the second play to be presented by Smackbang. It follows the highs and lows (and –er- blows) of six gay friends in England in the 1980’s, at the height of the AIDS crisis. Guy (Jonathan Hodge) is everyone’s best friend and no one’s lover: his flat is the setting for all three acts of the play. Guy has unrequited love for John (played with aloofness and a convincingly plummy accent by Edward Peni), an upper-class hunk who confesses he is having a secret affair with the Reg of the title. Daniel (Glenn Pickering, who looks great in pink), the local queen and Reg’s official lover, is unaware of this.

The audience never meet Reg, but everyone it seems (apart from Guy) has slept with him, even Bernie and Benny (Mike Dwyer and Todd Morgan), a gay twist on the classic odd couple. Meanwhile the spunky young Eric (Matthew Baker), who has been employed as Guy’s painter, is seemingly intent on discovering his sexuality with whoever can spare him five minutes.

The play presents a curiously alternate universe (at least to those of us in the audience who don’t inhabit gay society): an England where men liking men is a matter of course, where there are gay bars on every corner and where sexual gratification is immediate (well, ok, maybe not that different to the straight world). Curiously, unlike other portrayals of gay society in the media, there is little intrusion of the outside world – with the big exception of the HIV virus, which affects every character in some way. This is not, however, a play about being gay, having sex or even about having AIDS. At its heart, My Night with Reg is a play about male friendship and love.

Although some of the jokes seem a little obvious and cliché to today’s audience (the play was written in 1994), it’s still an immensely relevant story. The humour – which was unrelenting in places – underpins the more serious messages of the play, which are delivered with moving pathos. The actors only had 30 hours of rehearsal to perfect their lines, and in my opinion did exceptionally well, especially as many of the jokes required split-second timing to deliver. They also did a good job of ‘reading between the lines’ and delivering well-rounded, believable characters. Jonathan Hodge and Glen Pickering in particular were effective as the taken-for-granted Guy with a tragic secret and the flamboyant but fragile Daniel who suspects his lover’s infidelity but loves on nonetheless.

Having rehearsed and delivered two different plays in six weeks, director Rita Stone deserves to take a bow. She appeared at the beginning of the evening to apologise for the play only being “workshop standard” but I don’t think she needed to. This play was a tight piece of work and, at 1 ½ hours, was no easy feat to pull off. There was even decent sound engineering and simple but effective lighting. My one quibble with the evening was that the space was too small to accommodate the audience it deserved, and as it isn’t a purpose built theatre space but just a room with chairs, the actors tended to get lost behind all the attentive heads. But beggars can’t be choosers and at $10, it was a steal for a piece of quality theatre. And the tea wasn’t bad either.

Next up: an Edward Albee play, and then a new play by local playwright Claire Van Beek. I can say what I’ll be doing every Thursday night for the rest of the year.