Daffodils - review

"If you’re wondering if you could ever really love a play, this is the one. See it."

Daffodils

The Loft at Q Theatre
March 15, 2014

What a thrill. Right now, upstairs in the Loft at Q Theatre, there’s a play to turn you inside out and set you back, heart pounding and eyes all wet, terribly upset, terribly full of thanks that it could be so good. It’s a new-formed, fully fledged wonder. I love it. I think it’s a work of genius. I can’t, as you may have guessed, praise it enough.

Daffodils. The story of how a couple of Hamiltonians meet in the 60s, fall in love, get married, carve out a life. Set to the music of Neil Finn, Dave Dobbyn, Bic Runga, Don McGlashan, Ray Columbus, Chris Knox, Jordan Luck… all the old farts who have lit up our lives at one time or another, their songs re-imagined, renewed, worked over so they belt you round the chops and – with a wrenching clarion splendour you probably thought you would never feel for them again – call to you in your soul. I’m sorry, I know I already said it, but I can’t praise it enough.

Daffodils is “inspired by” the story of playwright Rochelle Bright’s own parents. It’s whimsical and bittersweet, and then it slides into darkness, and then, well, I don’t want to say how it plays out, except to say that Bright has both the skill to delight her audience at every turn and the courage to avoid any hint of easy sentimentality, and that’s breathtaking.

She knows pain but is not cynical. She knows glory but is not naïve. She knows we live by balancing sadness and survival, and that we look as best we can for something marvellous to transcend the balance, and she knows we find it, so often, in music.
If you’re in the mood for a good, deep, marvellous New Zealand story, a story of us, see this play. If you like our music, see it. If you’re wondering if you could ever really love a play, this is the one. See it.

If you’re in the mood for a good, deep, marvellous New Zealand story, a story of us, see this play. If you like our music, see it. If you’re wondering if you could ever really love a play, this is the one. See it.

I know, I’m gushing. When you see a lot of stuff and it’s often pretty good but rarely really good, and quite often it’s not so good, you don’t expect this. I am, as I said, thrilled.

Actually, it’s not so much a play as a musical: songs tell the story, give weight to the action, and like any really good musical they don’t tell us what to feel, but provide shape and deeper context to what we are already feeling. Pulling that off isn’t easy, and here, with re-scored songs we all know, there’s a bravura command of the form.

They lurch exhilaratingly into “She’s a Mod”, find new anguish in McGlashan’s “Anchor Me” and mount a surprisingly refreshed version of Luck’s “I’ll Say Goodbye”. The purest moment of their love comes, naturally, with Chris Knox’s “Not Given Lightly”. That purity ends in a relentless, extremely affecting chorus merging Blam Blam Blam’s “There is No Depression in New Zealand” with Darcy Clay’s “Jesus I Was Evil”.

You know from the programme there will be something by Dave Dobbyn, and you pray it’s not “Welcome Home”, and you feel foolish for doubting them when you discover that wasn’t the plan at all. Instead, in the climax of the show, his superb “Language” is pressed into heart-wrenching service.

All of this is partly Bright’s doing, in the way she has constructed her tale, but it’s more directly the work of Stephanie Brown, who did the arrangements, plays keyboards and sings. Brown, more widely known as the singer/songwriter and Silver Scroll winner Lips, stands shoulder to shoulder with Bright as the creative geniuses behind this show.

And why else am I gushing? Todd Emerson, as an actor, is blessed with an ability to slip from gauche enthusiasm to tragic disconnectedness. As singer he hangs all gangly off the microphone and belts it out in an immense ringing tenor: he’s gaspingly good right from the very start, and he never lets up.

Colleen Davis has a slower burn of a role, so that she comes at you and at you, and before you know it she’s wringing your heart out, and she sings (as anyone who heard her as Big Mama in Chicago or Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors will know) with a soaring glory.

It’s just them, with Brown and a couple of other splendid musicians also on stage. Director Dena Kennedy holds the actors in tight formal control, walking on strips of carpet downstage to their microphones, looking across to each other but never deviating, never touching. They have to nail it, the emotion, the timing, the songs, or the whole thing would be lifeless and flat. There’s no sort of good with a show like this. The simplicity oozes emotional intensity.
It’s about being a New Zealander, not in any big way, but in all the little domestic, intimate, day-by-day ways that really count.

And yes, we’ve seen this before: Toa Fraser’s Bare gave us two actors and two mikes 15 years ago. Daffodils honours that legacy by pushing out the possibilities, with music, by bottling the whimsy and, ultimately, by introducing a deeper charge to the work. As with the songs, this is a play that interrogates its own cultural context.

It’s about being a New Zealander, not in any big way, but in all the little domestic, intimate, day-by-day ways that really count. Just as it asks us to decide if it’s good enough to own those songs, it also asks us, are we good enough to be who we want to be? Are we able enough? Are we deserving enough?

There’s more. Bright’s writing is engaging, subtle, spare; her pacing magnificently sharp. Brown’s arrangements are all of those things too. And Garth Badger has supported them with a beautifully evocative set of slides and home movies (including real footage of Bright’s parents’ wedding) that screen on the back wall. The new Bullet Heart Club put this show together, under the eye of producer Kitan Petkovski. He, and all of them, should take a bow.

I said genius, although I don’t really know what that means. But what this show has is a combination of depth and delights, presented by a cast and crew who are uniformly superb, with an impressively formal discipline in the staging that in no way stops it also being turbulent, edgy, occasionally quite riotous.

Daffodils should play all over the country. It should play all over the world. It resonates so strongly as a piece of our own mixed-up, precious culture, it should be our new national flag.

It runs until March 29. Who knows, there may be better shows this year. But if there are not, I for one will still be happy. I’ve seen this one, and I feel blessed for it.

Read more:
Stranger than Fiction: playwright Rochelle Bright on the secrets behind Daffodils