Herald Theatre
Aug 14-Sept 7 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

FROM THE moment Ian Hughes steps on stage, he’s on intimate terms with us as an audience. That he manages to do this in the steeply raked space of the Herald Theatre is testament to his craft and of the stories he tells. There’s something friendly, even familiar, about Hughes. He looks like someone you’d see in the corner of the pub and not even notice. An ordinary bloke. But for 75 minutes, he has us entranced.

It’s hard to believe that Hughes is a first-time playwright. The show, which was developed through a devising process, is ambitious in its delivery and in the way four different narratives are woven together – his mother’s love story, that of ill-fated 15th – century explorer Zheng He, that of an Irish convict in the 1790’s, and finally that of Hughes himself. Although initially it’s hard to follow the wild swings in time and character, it’s amazing how quickly the mind acclimatises when the stories are good. The tales are laced up with sea shanties written in the old style by Don McGlashan – the wittiness of the lyrics give them away as modern copies.

Hughes is a wonderful storyteller, the kind who can draw people in and make them feel as if they are living the story. The one involving his mother is improbable, almost unbelievable and because of that, compelling. Of all the stories, that of the Irish convict tugged at the heartstrings the most. This, despite the slightly tacky storyline involving the Maori dusky maiden (much is made of her beauteous boobies) who rescues the sailor, Pocahontas-style, from the men of her tribe. I suspect a touch of satire there, though it was hard to tell under Hughes’ friendly smile.

The audiovisual element of the show complements the images conjured up by his poetic words. Designed by Michael Hodgson, Grant Bowyer and Theo Gibson, and projected onto a simple sail-shaped screen, they add to the narrative without being too clever. The use of projected rain, a gently bobbing ship side and a hospital bed is simple and effective. John Verryt’s set design is sparse and suited to the tradition of storytelling –the sail, with some built-in zips for entry and exit, a raised platform and a barrel which is rolled, sat on, stood on and fallen off. Hughes is a physical performer – at one stage he has a perfectly credible fight with himself – and you have to admire him for sustaining such a performance for so long without an interval, and for such a long season.

All in all, a sweetly mesmerising performance by a veteran performer, and one well worth seeing.