Basement Theatre
October 15-25 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

WHAT HAPPENS when a group of disaffected twenty-somethings get together to make a play? In one parallel universe, A City of Souls comes into being. Strangely enough, it’s about what happens when a group of disaffected twenty-somethings get together. If you’re not into deep and meaningful discussions about life, alcohol and the multiple uses of sexual organs, then this play may not hit your G-spot. On the other hand, if you enjoy this kind of discussion on a regular basis (or feel nostalgic about your long-past hedonistic youth), then you’ll probably love it.

Catalyst Theatre Company was formed when a group of Auckland actors decided to write their own play because none was out there that spoke for them. Although the play specifically references Auckland, New Zealand, what is portrayed seems to be a fairly universal experience of youth who are drifting post-education, unsure of their direction in life.

The play starts with a longish monologue by Dylan (Berkley), a young man who seems to spend his life wasted, floating from party to party, line to line. He tells us that he nearly died when he was 18 months old, but was saved by medical science, and then goes on to muse about the fine line between life and death. Although this is the set up for the ultimate (and slightly predictable) denouement of the piece, this is a slow start and in contrast to the energy of the following scene, in which the whole cast explode into an alcohol-fuelled club visit. The dialogue and movement of this and subsequent club visits (there are a few), aided by apt music and lighting, is done well and kick starts us into getting to know the characters.

Without a doubt, it is the characters which makes this play interesting. Each of the five actors create a memorable and distinctive character – Kate (Dallimore), the spunky chick with a dark secret, Mark (Van Lier), the hardworking all-round nice guy, Tobias (Simpson), Dylan’s dazed and confused nerd kid brother, and Andrew (Hodge), the guy who “sport fucks” every day of the week but who doesn’t know about true love. These characters, although deliberately taken to extremes, have a touch of the familiar about them. We feel like we may know someone just like them. Maybe they’re even us.

However, even though they’re fascinating, not enough is given of the back story for us to really feel we know these characters by the end of the play. Similarly there are a few story developments which seem murky, especially Dylan’s. The relationship arc between Kate and Mark is perhaps the most clear cut. But it takes most of the play to piece the other relationships together and to work out that Dylan, for all his failings, is the glue that binds this fragile little community together. But why him? I was left in the dark about the common history shared by the five friends – and at its heart, A City Of Souls is all about friendship. The play seemed very much about the here and now, and maybe this was the point, but I still felt unsatisfied.

What does work well is the tightness of the piece. The elements of lighting (by Kate Burton) and soundscape (appropriately funky digital beats, harvested from various contemporary artists by Ora Simpson) successfully combine to suspend us in the drifting, transient world of A City of Souls. The thin cloth sail backdrop betrays the small production budget, but the thought behind its use as a projection screen is evident and largely successful. Custom-made nesting wooden boxes designed by Zoe Crammond, combined and recombined by the actors to represent different rooms, sometimes seem a little awkward to move but also create interest.

It was a pleasure to see such intuitive actors at work. Dallimore in particular gives a nuanced performance with a monologue that is both disturbing and mesmerising. The others also have their moment in the spotlight, giving insights into character that left me wanting more. Exits and entrances are tight, and though initially the actors seem to work hard to make one-liners work, by the end of the play the audience are well in on the jokes and catching all the clever lines.

Overall, the result is a play that creeps up on you and keeps you watching with moments of surprise, delight, disgust and sympathy. Some of the writing is clever and there is some wonderfully poetic staging, but there’s also the feeling that this is still a work in progress. I think this is a work well worth further development and future showings – watch this space.