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Hudson & Halls Live! – review

Nov 7, 2015 Theatre

Hudson & Halls Live! Silo Theatre at the Herald Theatre

Photo: Josh Griggs.

Laugh? This play is so funny you could die of it. You shriek, splutter, scream, cry, gulp for more air and still run out of breath way, way before the jokes die down and the urge to keep laughing stops.  Well, that’s what it felt like to me. It’s very, very, very funny.

Hudson & Halls Live! tells the story of an evening in the 1980s when the nation’s then-favourite TV food celebs present a Christmas special, complete with turkey, a fancy French sauce and an awful lot of alcohol. They’re doing it live, which they’ve never done before, and they don’t have a script because that’s how they work. Great concept. You think, all this show has to do is get it even moderately right and it will work. But they aim far higher.

The evening is introduced by the nervously enthusiastic and overly officious Ngaire Watkins, a late stand-in as floor manager. Played by Jackie van Beek, she’s an extraordinarily funny foil to the flamboyant confidence-masks-anxiety personalities of Peter Hudson and David Halls. And she gets her moment, too. There’s also a bearded techie (Stuart Phillips) who wanders around, in a kind of in-joke for anyone who’s ever been on a TV set, and there are the two cooks.

Todd Emerson’s Peter Hudson is the sensible one, although sensible doesn’t seem like quite the right word for anything these two guys do. He’s got the self-appointed and usually thankless role of managing David Halls, whose singular purpose is to destroy the equilibrium established by Hudson and Watkins.

Why? Because it’s more fun living on the edge. And because he’s out to challenge almost every premise on which family television is supposedly based. He’s a fabulous fop, but he’s also furious.

Hudson and Hall were gay, they were lovers, and there they were, hiding in plain sight in the living rooms of the nation 30 years ago, teaching families how to create the centrepiece for that most sacred of family institutions: Christmas Day. It’s impossible to overstate how subversive this was.

And yet the play, to its enormous credit, doesn’t even mention it. There’s not a moment when anything gets preachy or even when the irony is directly addressed. Instead, we get the characters in all their rich human frailty and the occasion with all its inbuilt farce. The story does the work, brilliantly.

The ironies pile up. Now that we’re fretting all over again about the quality and role of entertainment shows on TV, Hudson & Halls Live! reminds us what wildly entertaining really looks like, and yet it’s not a TV show at all, it’s theatre. TV networks today wouldn’t know how to put on a show like this, although they surely should.

The big and obvious lesson is that the best shows revolve around authentic personalities – people we believe are giving us their true selves – not formulas presented by people who are merely functional. There’s a deeper lesson, too: when Hudson and Halls, with immense bravery, gave us their true selves, that brought out the best in us. We weren’t scared of them; we did not fear for our children in their presence. We loved them.

Kip Chapman created this show, with Todd Emerson and Silo’s artistic director Sophie Roberts, and Chapman also directed. He’s a treasure, and all three should be very proud of what they just made.

As for the leads, Emerson and Chris Parker, as Hudson and Halls respectively, are masterful in their command not just of the characters, and not just of the fast and extremely precise requirements of this kind of comedy, but of the surprisingly difficult process of cooking on stage while you’re talking. Everything goes wrong – well of course it does – and that’s an ongoing source of the hilarity, but they get it so right in making it so wrong.

At the end, true to tone, the message of the show is delivered at its platitudinous worst, and that’s funny. But while we’ve been laughing at all the ridiculous stage business, we discover we have also been taken deep into the relationship of the two men. It’s silly, and also complex, and very moving, all at once. Theatre rarely gets much better than this.

Oh yes, the food. It’s so awful. We’ve come a long way there. How sad we can’t say the same about light-entertainment television. Do Not Miss This Show.

Hudson & Halls Live! runs until December 5 at the Herald Theatre.


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