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

THESE THREE PLAYS are performed one after the other each night. You can get a decent serving of up-and-coming drama and feel quite satiated after a night out or you can choose individually from the smorgasbord. They present an intriguing pick and mix of styles and themes with an overarching element of seeking a place and a sense of self. If you can afford a plane ticket, they are being presented concurrently in Auckland and it would be well worth seeing the different interpretations.

There is a lot of talent around among these young and hungry folk and hopefully it will be nurtured. The teen anguish captured in the trio of plays is intense and evocative. Best years of your life? Don’t make me laugh. I’m so glad I’m not that age anymore – I may still not know where I’m going, but doesn’t seem to matter so much. The memories come flooding back, however, and these new works have much to offer to all, not just angry adolescents and social workers.

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Oyster: Struggle is an integral part of character, apparently. The grit in the oyster becomes a pearl, and there is plenty of matter for these characters to rub against and develop. Each is searching for individuality, while desperately trying to fit in. The set (designed by Sarah Burrell) of little skyscraper boxes grouped in various clusters of representative isolation heightens the sense of trying to stand out from the crowd.

Dolores (Lauren Gibson) is a serious student with a beautiful voice who is saving for her OE, while getting bullied at school by a triumvirate of mean girls. These three try to be cool by swearing and talking about sex. Dolores confides in her friend Velma (Karin McCracken), an animal activist (although she does eat oysters because that’s different) who seems comfortable in her own skin. Velma’s boyfriend, Marek (Sam Hallahan) is a Polish anthropology student, interested in prophets and why they have stopped hearing voices. He claims that spirituality has been replaced by consumerism and champions his intense socialist principles, all the while scrounging money off Velma.

She works, or rather, volunteers for Gaia (Cara Louise Waretini) whose extremely dull eco-warrior persona spouts diatribes of facts and slogans in the sort of student debates that everyone else fell asleep through. Her brother, Napoleon (Will Colin) is a Trekkie, claiming ‘People become Trekkies for all sorts of reasons’ and ‘It’s cool to be different’, but he’s not and tribal affiliation is no substitute for personality.

Meanwhile, Chevy (Tom Horder) finds religion and hands out ten brochures a day – his dialogue is delivered at a good pace and his gentle demeanour is appealing. Each character is seeking individual salvation, and when we see them all some years on, they have found it to varying degrees. Relationships end, expectations lead to disillusion, family commitments curtail personal freedoms, and Marek has a break-down in MacDonald’s. Only Dolores seems at ease, ‘I’ll be standing on the barricades singing whatever happens.’

Some of the actors are hard to understand and could emphasise their speeches more by not trailing off at the end of their sentences. Lauren Gibson is a stand-out and her clear and distinctive voice proves that the New Zealand accent doesn’t have to be a nasally mumble of unintelligibility. Jessica Aaltonen also impresses as she makes the switch from vindictive head bully to vulnerable loneliness with convincing ability and depth of character.

The closing apocalyptic rant has some good lines but no cohesion – one monologue follows another and it risks sounding like a high school debate. Vivienne Plumb is poet and short story writer, as well as a playwright, and much of it is more suited to the page than the stage. For example, Gaia and Napoleon share particularly unrealistic dialogue and the description of the visit to Phnom Penh is more like a short story than a piece of drama.

The understated direction (Rachel More) helps connect all these characters in their ever expanding network. Elegant touches – the angel reaching out a hand; the reading of letters by the writers themselves – suggest buoyancy in the maelstrom that is adolescence. With a little polishing, this piece could truly be a gem.

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Sit on It: Writer Georgina Titheridge must have spent an alarming amount of time in toilets at bars and nightclubs to capture the excellent dialogue of Sit on It. Over the course of about an hour, the clientele of the club drop by the facilities to hide, make ‘private’ phone calls, primp, preen, argue, fight, vomit and have sex –in rapid succession. Oh, and a couple even go to the toilet – as we are told in graphic detail. I’m just appalled by the number of people who don’t wash their hands – so that’s how swine flu is spreading! I’m not exactly OCD but I’m off to buy some hand sanitizer.

We are presented with a number of types. The sparkly girls come complete with glittering handbags and salon hair – Jenny (Eve Marina) wants to do some ‘nasty dancing all over boys and stuff’ while Jen (Prue Clarke) just wants to be nasty. The long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans girls are ‘obviously lesbians’ – Millie (Anna Pearson) asks her friend Bill (Ashleigh James) why they are there and I would have to echo that question. It’s Ladies Night, so they can get free drinks, but it won’t exactly be salubrious, as the plywood toilets (set design by Joel Cocks) indicate.

Mike (Daniel Watterson) who keeps straying ‘accidentally’ into the women’s toilets is a good character and maintains his level of insecure bluster throughout – so perplexed by his sexuality that he propositions anyone and everyone. Dan (Jonathan O’Kane) also seems confused, becoming awkwardly drawn to Mike moments after turning down Wendy (Gabrielle Beran) who was quick to whip off her top in a cubicle, because it was more romantic than shagging by the sinks.

True to stereotype, most of the characters arrive in pairs, including an underage kid Bell (Gussie Larkin) hiding from her big sister Carla (Zoë Towers), and the two slapstick clowns Tammy (Jackie Shaw) and Vanessa (Phoebe Smith). The Moaning Myrtle wallflower, Francis (Ana Clark) in a highly unlikely dress, tries too hard to be appealing because she hasn’t any friends of her own. The ladies loos can be a very lonely place, as Millie discovers when she attempts to get someone to stop and have a conversation.

Director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford uses the device of having the actors talk into the mirror, so they can face us as they speak to each other. This could involve the audience but the characters are all revolting so we’re simply not engaged (pardon the corny pun – it’s contagious). The only decent person in this club is Monica (Debs Rea) who is a total skank – Amy Winehouse style, with the beehive to match. She doesn’t blink when her implants pop out and blithely takes her knickers off (I can only assume because she worries they are giving her VPL), but she generously offers a complete stranger the use of her cell phone because she’s got lots of credit.

Parts of the action are incisive as the girls get increasingly dishevelled and unappealing – why do we think we’re sexy when we’re drunk? Others, however, betray a lack of insight, such as the cat fight. Those girls were spoiling for a fight, pumped with aggression and would have punched and kicked when they were down – to portray them as pathetic handbag wavers may get a cheap laugh, but there are already plenty of those and this is ultimately disappointing.

Incidents are played out for maximum comedy effect which conversely spoils the impact. Although the dialogue is perceptive, the stereotypical characterisation and over-the-top acting style leave the performers with nowhere to go. The screaming fever-pitch climax is intensely irritating, and although there are some good comedy sketches, there is not enough depth or development to really class as a play.

This has been done before and better (Willy Russell’s Stags and Hens is currently enjoying a renaissance) and Titheridge herself has trod very similar ground in the fantastic Babycakes. If you’re that age and you know the actors, it’s probably a scream, but if the acting is toned down and the directing more subtle, it could reach a much wider audience.

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Urban Hymns: We are told early on that this play is “about power and control”, which is achieved through drugs, music, violence and words, borrowed from poetry and spray-painted onto walls. The play is deliberately confrontational from the very first word – a long, drawn-out expletive. The low-level lighting (Isaac Heron, Nick Chester) is probably also meant to provoke, but rather serves to annoy.

The characters talk the language of high flying businessmen (and they are all men apart from two abused females) with their downsizing, redundancy and bringing it to the marketplace but it transpires they are teenagers pumping petrol and with essays to hand in at school. It is reminiscent of Brick with its enigmatic film noir dialogue placed in the mouths of adolescents: “this town is a desert”, “the windy city had wide horizons”, and “I have the distinct impression that being 16 years old was not to my advantage”.

The extremely slow start saw people shuffling in their seats, and it is apparent that director (Fiona Truelove) is using every tool in the drama student shed. With self-conscious ‘actorly’ movements the characters remain on stage throughout and if they aren’t simultaneously shouting and mumbling through their monologues, they are doing handstands or climbing the edge of the set – at least it is a welcome distraction. My companion said, ‘I’ve never come away from a play where people have writhed against the walls thinking, that was a good play’.

The essay that they mention ad nauseum is about Hone Tuwhare, which is a particularly clunky motif. Times have evidently changed a lot since I was at school; the ‘cool kids’ were never this interested in poetry, or homework for that matter. The images of ‘we who live in darkness’ and ‘black on black on black’ are emphasised through the crepuscular lighting and the nihilistic attitudes, like Outrageous Fortune but without the wit and humour.

The teen anguish is painfully raw. Blue (Mani Dunlop) says “I don’t understand why but it’s all falling down”. Her brother Isaiah (Benny Marama), who is “not allowed” to touch her (hinting at undercurrents of family violence), just wants to drive somewhere and “get fucked up”. In the best line of the play, Tobias (Cameron Jones) laments, “I’m too young for university, too ugly for a girlfriend, too stupid to drive, too impatient for school – what’s left for me?”

But the one-liners exist in isolation. Either the characters forgot their lines or they simply don’t follow on from each other, and there are a lot of black holes. Two actors who shine are Isaac Heron who plays Lucius the dealer with an even-paced, confident but detached delivery, and Cameron Jones whose edgy hand-clapping finger flicking Tobias was like something out of West Side Story. His mercurial trickery also brings Puck-like characteristics to mind.

The issues within this play which are worth exploring. The oil fields are drying up and petrol will become a precious commodity – it will have great value in the marketplace, is highly explosive and can reduce ideals to smoke. As petrol cans are filled and passed from hand to hand Truelove echoes the food chain motif. Are we all part of something like a community, or just another insignificant link? Blue claims, in Tuwhare’s words that “we are not alone”.

If someone is educated does that mean they have no right to join in the debate? Isaiah tells Blue, “You’re a jumped up rich kid, accept it! Who cares what you have to say?” She counters that she wants to write the words, but not in an essay, which is why she sprays them, “so that every letter stands bigger than you” and “To remind us all about what’s happening out there in this dark, dark world we live in”. If the writing is on the wall and she is leaving her mark, can she be ignored?

Das (Ian Walsh) pushes the mythical dark apart to create a light through music. “The moment I stepped into the music room my world became to ao marama, the world of light. My world became. I became.” It seems rather incongruous that the person who finds a creative outlet from the legendary black is a white Englishman. He delivers a monologue to tell us how he has learned to fly and changed his old destructive ways. As this is a drama, it would be better to demonstrate this through action rather than relying on narrative.

This is an interesting play, but is done a disservice by the production values. Writer Miria George certainly leaves us with a lot to think about – it would be good to be able to become immersed rather than straining to see and hear it.