Little and large

by Natasha Hay / 19 March, 2005

If you believe theatre to be in its death throes, go immediately to Niu Sila. In the tradition of other multicultural shows like Toa Fraser's Bare and No 2, Niu Sila is a deceptively simple work yet a rich theatrical experience. It begins in the present. Peter Burton (Damon Andrews), a bicultural affairs policy analyst, bumps into a less-than-friendly, unemployed Ioane Tafioka (David Fane) in an Auckland TAB. Suddenly, we are back in pre-latte-drinking working-class Ponsonby in the 60s, when six-year-old Ioane, fresh off the boat from the Pacific, moves in next door to six-year-old Peter and begins a great friendship.

No strangers to exploring race relations with wicked irreverence, writers Dave Armstrong and Oscar Kightley (bro'town and Naked Samoans) hilariously evoke a society that was becoming less white-bread. The cultural differences are affectionately sent up: where the Burtons take Ioane to hear the NZSO, for instance, atheist-raised Peter is taken to church in Grey Lynn by the Tafiokas.

Told as a series of superbly paced comic sketches from Peter's perspective, the narrative whizzes along under the light touch of director Conrad Newport, and is punctuated effectively by the music that he and Gareth Farr created.

It also stars two brilliant performers. As soon as they come out in their matching orange shirts and brown pants, Fane and Andrews elicit roars of laughter from the audience. Polynesian Fane is tall and wide; diminutive blond Andrews reaches his shoulders. Together the puny palagi and the big brown bro conjure up, with enormous heart and humour, more than 30 characters, magically filling the bare stage with neighbours, parents, siblings, an Indian cricket team, to create cheeky snapshots of their vibrant community. Despite Fane's beard and largesse, he convinces equally as a lithe teenage girl or Ioane's mother engulfing Peter in her huge bosom or curtain-twitching Mrs Heathcote, who thinks her neighbours will bring rape and murder to the street. One minute tiny Andrews is a thuggish policeman, the next he is Peter's refined, feminist mum, then he's witchy Miss Hagen, a teacher who calls Ioane Ian because his name is too hard to say.

Although the laughs come thick and fast - at times there was so much cackling that you missed dialogue - there is a poignant undertow. When tragedy hits, Newport cleverly underplays the sentiment so that the payoff for the audience is deeply affecting. Niu Sila is a triumph and deserves the rapturous reception it got on preview night.

NIU SILA, by Dave Armstrong and Oscar Kightley; directed by Conrad Newport, ATC, Maidment Theatre, Auckland (until March 19).

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