SkyCity Theatre
June 5-26 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

WRITTEN by the father-daughter team of Roger and Pip Hall, Who Needs Sleep Anyway? is a fast paced and rather predictable romp through the trials and tribulations of parenthood, with Plunket (that’s a capital P to you) always hovering nearby. The Halls take care to say, “it’s not a play, it’s an entertainment”, and taken with this in mind, it’s a nice night out. As the puns and lame jokes fall thick and fast those looking for depth should best look elsewhere, but as a piece of entertainment, it’s not too bad.

One of the show’s strengths is its cast – Mark Hadlow is perfect as an uncannily cute, if man-sized and middle-aged, Baby P (again, that’s P for Plunket, for reasons I will explain shortly). His stage-dive entrance into the world was one of the best-executed stage rebirths I have ever seen – okay, it’s the only one I’ve seen, but still it was well done. Hera Dunleavy and Adam Gardiner, fresh from their pairing as frustrated parents in The Female of the Species, are again paired in this show and their trust is reflected in their spot-on comedic timing. Kate-Louise Elliott is well cast as the warm and comfortable Nurse Daisy. Johnny Bright, Sophie Henderson, Nicola Flynn and Stephen Butterworth offer solid support and apt characterisations of their own.

Warm and comfortable seems to be what this show is going for, plus a heavy dose of nostalgia. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the venue itself (the pseudo-glitzy Sky City Theatre) was all wrong. It seemed strangely at odds with the kind of show it was: part skit show, part song-and dance, part infotainment. It was a show that wouldn’t be out of place in a community hall, if it weren’t for the obviously high-budget staging.

In the course of 90 minutes nearly every imaginable piece of Kiwiana was paraded on stage in a succession of “cardboard” cutouts, images were projected on all types of clever screens and the cast changed in and out of over seventy costumes (kudos to the backstage team for managing it all). The blur of activity resulted in a busy, Monty Pythonesque feel to the show, although at times it interrupted continuity and was distracting.

The show skipped rapidly between being a history lesson focussing on the role of Plunket in NZ and an observational comedy on the modern-day delights (and trials) of bringing up Baby. This resulted in a slightly schizophrenic feel, probably due to the fact that Pip wrote most of the modern-day stuff and Roger the history part, but apparently the intent was always to have the two parts mix into a single piece. The jokes, however, seemed to hit the spot with the audience (the one about the baby swallowing the condom produced the most laughs and Hadlow’s skit about toddlers driving their parents crazy with “why?” was greeted with a fervent response from the parents in the audience.)

Which brings me to the link with Plunket. Who Needs Sleep Anyway? started off life as a commission from Plunket to celebrate their centenary. Thus the emphasis on “entertainment” and apart from a certain sly irreverence, no mention of the controversy that dogged much of Dr Truby King’s work. What is portrayed well is a sense of the changing fashions and ideas around parenthood, and a sense that they well might change yet again. I was disappointed that although there was some emphasis given to the fact that Plunket was initially set up to help the poorer members of society, there was no mention of the efforts made by modern-day Plunket to liaise with Maori and Pacific Island health services (although to give the ATC credit, this was mentioned in the souvenir programme). This seemed to me to be unnecessary “whitewashing” given that part of the purpose of this play was to celebrate the role of Plunket in NZ and to encourage the public to reconnect with its ideals of “health for all babies”. I enjoyed a moment near the end – one of the few glimpses of the dark side of parenthood – where the modern-day Plunket (parent advice) line was portrayed as throwing a lifeline to a mother about to hurt her children. The raw emotion added a sense of gravity that I found mostly lacking in the rest of the piece. Maybe it wasn’t that kind of play, but I thought a bit more of this kind of depth would have benefited this show.

Who Needs Sleep Anyway? includes several musical numbers, performed with admirable zest by the cast. Again, their energy would have filled a smaller hall and possibly got the audience clapping and singing along, but in the voluminous interior of the Sky City Theatre the unaccompanied voices felt a little light. However, Hadlow’s operatic rendition of a song about defecation, (well, ‘poo’ to some of us) athletically sung with his pants around his knees, was my personal highlight of the evening.

The final verdict? I asked my friend Catherine, who as mother-of-three is well qualified to judge whether the Halls got the parenting experience right. And she thought it was spot-on – a particular delight being Hadlow’s depiction of a baby slobbering all over his Dad. True, there were many laughs of recognition from the audience, and the toilet humour seemed to hit the right spot. And as Catherine wisely pointed out, not everyone is after a ‘deep’ night out at the theatre – sometimes all those tired mums and dads want is a soft pillow and some light entertainment.