Te Karanga, K’Rd Auckland
April 10, 17 | Reviewed by Renee Liang (Contains Spoilers)

“POISONOUS people taint situations; they leave a residue of poison wherever they go,” says Claire Van Beek, the writer and director of this new Kiwi play, which had its world premiere last week. Dead Meat explores three types of poisonous relationships: those of family in a failing country farm; those of workplaces in (appropriately) a small-town butcher’s shop; and finally, those experienced by a couple at the end of their lives. It is really three separate short plays, linked (perhaps tenuously) by two common characters.

This play is to be commended for its dedication to set design above and beyond the call of duty. With three full scene changes in just under an hour, including painted backdrops, I was left marvelling at how the hell they got that door complete with doorframe and full kitchen cabinet up the narrow stairs at Te Karanga. There were also amusing touches involving lots of flour, mice glued to toy cars and meatballs.

Unfortunately, all the preplanning and hard behind-the-scenes work wasn’t enough to hide the flimsiness of the script. In telling the story of poor young Jack and his family, his beleaguered boss Ross (no rhyme intended) and the elderly Jim and Betty, I was left with an overall feeling that the play didn’t really deliver what it could have.

In the first story, despite some excellent characterisation by Tahi Mapp-Borren and Nathan Rimell and parts where the dialogue was nicely acid, the characters were not given enough time to reveal their motivations. Why was the father such an embittered character? Did he have any redeeming reasons for the terrible way he acts? Why is the mother so helpless and what’s her reason for staying with her husband? And why do they bully their son Jack so much? The psychological poisoning was so fascinating that the physical poisoning was hardly needed. But after only a brief dalliance with this topic and despite a very amusing striptease scene (played with nerve by Henriette Gaskell-Hahn), we were marched onto the second story.

Ross the butcher (played with gleaming white teeth by Tainui Tukiwaho) is far too nice to be poisonous. His business is losing money to the supermarket next door, his shop is overrun with mice, he has dubious hygiene practices and he can’t afford to keep paying his guileless young apprentice Jack (Elliot Christensen-Yule). But his tendency for terrible puns involving the word “meat” gets, frankly, a little raw after the first few times. And despite showing great potential as a more affable Kiwi version of Sweeney Todd (complete with musical numbers), in the end all Ross succeeds in doing is accidentally maybe-poisoning some rich corporates, that is if Health and Safety don’t revoke his licence first. Despite the intricate set-up, Ross’s reaction to all that provocation is not, ultimately, all that poisonous. We don’t even get to see his knives, though we do get to see his balls. Meatballs I mean.

The linker to the last story is an elderly customer, Jim, who steals some rat poison and goes home to poison himself and his ailing wife, Betty. This was the story that came the closest in my opinion to emotional power. Mapp-Boren as Betty was convincing in her characterisation of an elderly invalid who is still a young girl inside, and there were some lovely subtle comedic touches with false teeth. The couple’s last dance had a moving pathos to it. The storytelling was also tighter than in the other two stories, and I found these characters more convincing and more believably rounded.

Dead Meat has received funding to be made into a short film, and I can’t help thinking that this would be a better medium for this set of stories in their current form. The theme of “poison” is intriguing and any one of the three stories has potential to be developed into a much deeper narrative. I think that the play would have benefited from less literal staging (even the roast was real), which distracted from the story and characters and sometimes seemed to trip up the actors. In the end, I felt Dead Meat attempted to achieve too much, too fast – but introduced some great ideas. Watch this space.