The Basement (Akld), BATS Theatre (Wgtn)
July 10-25 | Reviewed by Renee Liang

FIFTEEN years after the Young & Hungry Festival of New Works was set up in Wellington, it has finally come to Auckland – and it is set to be a valuable addition to an already lively youth theatre scene. Over sixty young theatre practitioners aged 15-25 are involved in acting and production roles in the two centres, mentored by some of the most respected names in NZ theatre. In Auckland, a partnership with the Auckland Theatre Company gives these fresh young artists access to some enviable resources, clearly shown in the production values for these three plays.

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Oyster by Vivienne Plumb, directed by Julie Nolan, is a quick-fire sampling of the words and thoughts of Generation Y. The play is more a collection of poetic vignettes than a clear plotline, letting the audience to find their own touchstones within the many story fragments presented. Careful listening over time forms an intriguing web of narrative, aided by wonderful language and imagery.

Plumb shows she has a keen ear for the voices she represents. She’s certainly done her homework (one imagines her eavesdropping on buses and lurking in student cafeterias). Rather than linger on one story the action moves quickly from one set of a characters to another, their relationships slowly revealed over time. The writing is clever and tangential, riffing on stories from recent newspaper articles.

Issues tackled range from school bullying to cruelty to pigs to concerns about the environment. Take away the (dubious) taste in oonst-oonst music and the reliance on electronic communication and Gen Y seems not too different from the generations that have gone before. At the end of the day, the characters’ aim is one that resonates – the pursuit of individual happiness. Thus the ‘oyster’ of the title is one that is rough on the outside but sweet and contented on the inside. It’s a lovely evocation, a storybook image providing refuge from a world that sometimes seems impossibly harsh.

Julie Nolan coaxes a confident, energetic performance from her young cast. The stage at times feels too small for the nine actors who almost collide as they stride about the stage, but they are perfectly complemented by the upbeat soundtrack and zesty LED lighting. Cast and director have clearly spent time teasing out the pearls hidden in the text. And if their performances were somewhat unpolished on the opening night, we also believe that like the oysters of the title, there are treasures to be found in the end.

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Sit On It by Georgina Titheridge, directed by Ben Crowder, is a revealing (some might say rather too revealing) at the seedy underside of women’s toilets. Set entirely in the loos of a trendy nightclub, this is no-holds-barred writing at its best. Why do women always go to the toilet in groups and stay there for hours? If you’re a man and watch this play it will be a mystery no longer. For women, this is a knickers-wetting revisit of all the most embarrassing episodes ever experienced in the ladies’. But only by the friend of a friend of a friend, of course.

All the characters (there’s a huge cast of thirteen) start off drunk and only get drunker. If I had one criticism of this play it would be that this is the main ‘character development’. There’s only so many laughs you can get by watching people (especially young women) act completely trashed and demean themselves. And Titheridge gets most of those laughs. But in a festival of plays for youth, none of her characters could be described as role models.

But then it’s not that kind of play. Sit On It is through and through a comedy, an amusing, sharp-witted expose of one of the most sacred rituals of female bonding. Intriguingly, the directors for both the Wellington and Auckland productions of this play were male. Ben Crowder (Auckland) does an excellent job of untangling the female psyche, no doubt with plenty of assistance from the predominantly female cast. The two male cast members do a stellar job, with vulnerable Dan and libidinous Mike being uncomfortably familiar characters (for some of us at least).

The attractive female cast not only fit their tiny little dresses perfectly, they also inhabit their characters, making each one seem distinct and not as stereotypical as we at first expect. We believe in their back stories, even though with such a huge cast and a running time of 50 minutes, there’s little time to expand. The comedic timing is impeccable and there are challenging moments of physical humour which are smoothly handled. The prize for most hilarious (and simultaneously most cringe-inducing) performance must go to Geraldine Jaynes for her character Monica’s questionable dress sense. Special mention must go to Agustina Cosacov for design of a daring pop art-inspired set which matched the mood of the play perfectly.

Titheridge’s writing is fast paced and precise. It drew frequent explosions of laughter from the audience on opening night, male and female alike, and the applause at the end was thundering. So it’s not a morality play. Who cares, apart from snobby theatre critics? This is a play that can and should travel.

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Urban Hymns by Miria George, directed by Michelle Johansson, is different again, blending as it does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare with the voice of urban kiwi youth. Of the language on offer in this play, I’d say that Tuwhare’s offers the clearest way through. Most of the rest is hard to understand, at least for us old fogeys. The youth in this piece seem to speak in a mix of hip hop cliché and drug jargon (a character at one point gets chastises another for not using the right slang for dope smoking). It all gets a bit cryptic, sometimes.

The play follows a group of feral youths who spend their days drifting from crime to crime, smoking dope and stealing petrol, seemingly unsupervised by adults. The idea of using the poetry of Hone Tuwhare to underscore the issues of urban youth is a good one. In this production however, this potential is not explored deeply enough. One or two characters find enough inspiration in Tuwhare’s words and other music to renounce their lives as drifters; they never tell us enough to understand why.

In the end only one Tuwhare poem is used, one that clearly focuses the play on issues of brown pride. It seems a shame, given the premise, that we only hear snippets of one. Tuwhare left us a wealth of his words, many of which offer relevant commentary on NZ society. One plot device I had particular difficulty with was that none of these kids went to school, but they all seemed to be obsessed with finishing a homework essay on Tuwhare. Perhaps if we’d heard more of his language coming through it would have told us why.

Miria George is ambitious in tackling the big issues – youth poverty and crime, drug use, gangs. Her script is heartfelt and no doubt sends a strong message to the Maori and Pacific Island audience it is aimed at. Her group of odd misfits are appealing in their way. Das comes the closest to a rounded character, his conflict between supporting his father and a life of crime poignantly shown by Diako Amin. The supporting characters are much more one sided. These are big topics and big dramas for such a young cast to handle, and their work over the season can only mature.

At the end of the day, I was left wishing for more closure, more character development. Most of the characters seem to end the play in the same position where they started. Maybe if they’d listened more to the words of Hone they would have changed.