Auckland Fringe: The 5 Best Characters of Week Two... And the Worst
Theatre critic James Wenley’s Auckland Fringe week two in review.
5. Pilot (in Grounded)
Anne Hathaway’s about to play the role on Broadway and you can see the attraction. The unnamed pilot in George Brant’s award-winning solo play Grounded is ripe for an actress wanting to show her chops and reinvent herself for the stage. After returning from maternity leave, the former fighter pilot is shuffled onto the “chair force” where she pilots a US Drone from the safety of a Las Vegas airbase. Obama’s aversion to boots on the ground has meant the exponential pursuit of drone warfare, but critics argue that it makes it even harder to win “hearts and minds” and mistakes happen often.
“Same desert, different war” says the pilot. She resents her new operation. She longs for her blue, to “feel the sky”, but is instead stuck in front of 12 hour shifts of grey. Harder still is returning to her husband and daughter each day. If she had it her way, she’d be away for a long time on an extended mission. Motherhood is a foreign desert.
Erica Kroger plays the role forcefully with rapid-fire dialogue. The production needs to go easier on the lighting cues, and allow us more moments for us too to feel the pull of the blue. Brant’s writing locks onto complex issues of femininity, warfare, and the psychological toll of the pilot’s new assignment. She finds it hard to cope with the fact that the threat of her own death has been removed. She’s a god, able to take a life, without any potential repercussions for her. It’s powerful indeed when Kroger hits the trigger, eyes wide, hands open. “Boom”. All too easy.
4. Lucy Flapp and Dick Dickinson (in The Loose Dick Kiddies Show)
Have you seen the video where the cast of British children’s TV series Rainbow do an adults-only spoof of the show? “Hello, we’re going to be talking about playing today,” says Geoffrey. “Playing with each other?” asks Bungle the bear excitedly. The Loose Dick Kiddies Show, bought to us by the letters “U” for “Un-PC” and “O” for “offensive” is like an hour-long version of that (and they even seem to have stolen some of the jokes too!).
Our hosts Loose and Dick, dressed in garishly coloured cardigans and permed and teased wigs, are naughty and they know it. “Do you like to smoke drugs with your friends?” they ask us in their sing-song voices. They’re joined by a colourful cast of characters include Brown Beaver (who enjoys squirting the audience with his water blaster), Pat the Pre-op Postman (“I want to be a fe-mail”), and Humpme Dumpme. With story-time, songs (“Oh dearie me it’s the IRD”), and social criticism (a toy house is used to illustrate the problems of overcrowding in South Auckland) Loose and Dick are the best inappropriate kids TV show hosts you could hope for.
3. Kyle (in Away from Home)
One of the few international performers in the Auckland Fringe and Auckland Pride, Rob Ward’s one-man show Away from Home is a must-see this week. To his mates, Kyle is just one of boys who enjoys going to the footy on a Saturday, but what they don’t know is he makes his money as a rent boy. His occupation and football passion collide when a closeted football star wants to exclusively retain Kyle’s services. Sweet deal? Not when the footballer is about to sign up with the enemy side, not to mention that he likes to play power games.
It’s a little awkward getting into Kyle’s story at first. The play begins with naturalism (right down to a quick flash of nudity as Ward changes outfit) before transitioning into Ward’s stylised storytelling as he acts out Kyle’s story and eyeballs us. But once we’re in, we’re with him all the way as Ward deftly manoeuvres us through the messy field of Kyle’s life. The love of the game allows for some fairly amusing football metaphors along the way (“limp as the Brazilian defense”) and there are some pointed barbs about the homophobia in the sport. But more than the footy, it is the character study of Kyle that is the winner of this play.
2. Puzzle Maker’s Wife (in Puzzle)
Ben Anderson’s class of visual theatre usually contains some rather wonderful puppetry (Just Above the Clouds), and in Puzzle we are a treated to some cute and idiosyncratic puzzle pieces (with little arms and legs). The main puppet is Blue, one of the countless blue pieces that makes up the blue sky in a picture of a hot air balloon. Blue doesn’t feel like he belongs, and Anderson uses Blue’s journey to find the place where he fits for a philosophically rich discussion of individual versus collective responsibility.
But this time it is a human character who steals the show. Courtney Abbot is wife to the puzzle maker, and the chief dispenser of wisdom and Anderson’s trademark puns. She weaves stories about Little Billy (playing lego, he builds a bridge from one city to another for economic progress), who her husband assumes is just a metaphor, but may be more real than he thinks. Puzzle combines visual quirk with sharp writing that makes me think of a fluffier Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman). Though the ending takes the easy option, and even the Puzzlemaker’s wife has a monologue too many, Puzzle is a vibrant theatrical piece, and the wife the most vibrant of them all.
1. Beast (in Beast)
What is the beast? I’m not even sure. He says he’s trying to make contact with us. Under Taylor Hall, the anti-Christ of clowning, he’s the most memorable character that I’ve met this Fringe. Let’s hope we haven’t seen the last of him.
And the worst… Kelly (in The Shittiest Theatre You Will Ever See)
The title The Shittiest Theatre You Will Ever See is bait to a reviewer. In a late-night, one-off Fringe slot at The Basement, writers Natalie Medlock and Thomas Sainsbury had free reign to do pretty much anything and the audience are ready for a good time. Natalie Medlock, wearing her producers hat, talks up the international prospects for their new work in pre-show boast.
The initial story is about a group of actors wanting to do a Laramie Project-style verbatim piece on last year’s Ashburton WINZ shooting. Cringey, yes, but what’s satirised here are the actors themselves and NCEA-style drama conventions. But then it moves on to some quite shitty material indeed. A drawn-out kitchen sink melodrama about starving a disabled person to death is bad enough, but then the show becomes a pretentious one-woman show flippantly dealing with sexual abuse. There’s shitty, and then there’s offensive.
Natalie Medlock apparently replaced the advertised actress at last minute, so it falls to her to deliver an intentionally awful performance of an awful character. Maybe this was just the release that Medlock and Sainsbury needed, a detox to get rid of all gunk in their writing systems. For Medlock, it must have been a good antidote from most recently being the objectified it girl of Silo’s Blind Date Project. Maybe they should talk to Anne Hathaway for the international season?