The year of rats & penguins

by Listener Archive / 29 December, 2007
This year's stage beauties.

==DUNEDIN - Anna Chinn==

Best production The Clean House, a tale of modern neuroses, at the Fortune Theatre. Maybe the brilliantly quirky script by Sarah Ruhl, some sort of official genius, gave it an unfair advantage, but the Fortune polished it with stage technologies, and actors Anna Henare, Hilary Norris, Jude Gibson and Jen Wolfe handled it with great skill and vibrancy. The Clean House has shiny rivals, mind you, in the spick and span Mum's Choir (Fortune) and The Road to Mecca (Globe).

Best director Lisa "just call me Midas" Warrington turned both Mum's Choir and The Road to Mecca to gold. Runner-up: Louise Petherbridge for her work at the Globe on Home, whose cast, while portraying the elderly and confused, conveyed the kind of clarity that comes from strong direction.

Best actor Mark Neilson, who risked unwanted attention from fetishist fans, and other hazards, when he donned a nappy to star as Baby P in Roger and Pip Hall's Who Needs Sleep Anyway? at the Fortune. Runner-up: Richard Huber, exquisitely derelict as the drunken patriarch of a theatre troupe in Stage Blood at the Globe.

Best actress In this order: Louise Petherbridge, who played South African outsider artist Miss Helen in The Road to Mecca with a level of conviction that was almost frightening; from The Clean House, Anna Henare (learnt to tell jokes in perfect-sounding Portuguese) and Hilary Norris (easily did "neurotic" best of all the neurotics seen); and the merry Mum's Choir trio of Clare Adams, Julie Edwards and Marama Grant.

Best design Peter King's gleaming contemporary design for The Clean House, though runner-up Andrew Cook continued to teach audiences the Joy of Sets over at the Globe, especially with the glittery home in The Road to Mecca.

Best new play No contest: it has to be the recent society sampler Hairway to Heaven, by Sarah McDougall.

And a Christmas wish ... That the Fortune try devoting its Hutchinson Studio space to local theatre. If it doesn't work, so be it, but while the Fortune rolls without an artistic director, the likelihood that its directors and leads will come from other centres remains high.

==CHRISTCHURCH - Faith Oxenbridge==

It was a good year for theatre in Christchurch. At the Christchurch Arts Festival the dreamy French lyric piece Aurelia's Oratorio mesmerised audiences with its ingenuity and beauty, while Circus Oz went boldly and bawdily where no traditional circus has gone before. Hatch and Strange Resting Places leapt across the ditch, and Carl Nixon's new play The Raft (Court Theatre) cemented his position as one of our most talented playwrights. My pick of the festival theatre, though, was the exquisitely crafted and performed children's play from Capital E, Papershaper.

Best new play British playwright Roy Smiles's play about George Orwell, The Year of the Rat. Court Theatre artistic director Ross Gumbley secured the rights to the world premiere of this play, which sensitively and intelligently blends the political with the personal: Stalinism, capitalism, the British class system and the man who was described as the social conscience of his generation, but felt like a failure because he wasn't good with girls.

Best director Elric Hooper, for his big-picture vision and scrupulous attention to detail in the sumptuous and delightfully fatuous production of William Wycherly's The Country Wife at the Court. No one does Restoration comedy with this much flair, affection and skill.

Best actor John Bach, for his portrayal of Orwell in The Year of the Rat. Bach is Orwell - his face has replaced the author's on my copies of 1984 and Animal Farm. He captured - and almost transcended - Orwell's intellect, compassion, passion, humility and self-deprecating wit.

Best actress Susan Curnow as the desperate and deluded Amanda in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. While other Amandas skate across the surface of this faded Southern belle's delusions and manipulations, Curnow gave her character both dignity and depth. Runner-up: Sandra Rasmussen, for her sensitive and unsentimental portrayal of the beleaguered Rose in the Court's production of Robert Lord's Joyful and Triumphant.

Best design Babylon Heights, at the Forge. Julian Southgate's claustrophobic oversized set added both resonance and poignancy to Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh's pitch-black tragi-comedy about the Munchkins on the set of The Wizard of Oz who were paid less than - and treated worse than - Dorothy's dog.

Best production The Year of the Rat. It's a rare and beautiful thing when everything comes together - writing, acting and direction. Smiles's play tenderly bares the person - as much heart as brain - beneath the politics, and a great cast under the careful direction of Ross Gumbley gave the play a world-class world premiere.

==WELLINGTON - Harry Ricketts==

Best new play Best title certainly went to Charlotte Simmonds's The Story of Nohome Neville and Unwholesome Clare Who Worked in Kitchens and Smelt like a Dish (my favourite since that of the 1969 movie Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?), and Simmonds's play wasn't bad, either. Vivienne Plumb's The Cape (Circa) gave a poignant insight into the vulnerable world of teenage boys. The most impressive new work, though, was Dean Parker's The Hollow Men (Bats), adapted from Nicky Hager's book about the rise and fall of Don Brash (don't mention the Masons). We rarely see local political plays of this sophistication.

Best design Daniel Williams's fridge-piled set sympathetically complemented the AIDS-driven angst of Angels in America (Downstage), while Brian King dealt inventively with the demands of The Hollow Men's constant scene shifts. John Hodgkins yet again created brilliantly apt sets for a wide range of productions. His detail-attentive, period set for The Winslow Boy (Circa) was surpassed only by his elegant spatial solutions to the various locations in Fat Pig (Circa).

Best actor The performance of the year was undoubtedly Grant Tilly's as geriatric Southland farmer Ken Taylor in Gary Henderson's Home Land (Circa). Tilly gave a master class in how to convey intense feeling through a grunt, a lurch, a stare. There were also standout performances from newcomer Emmet Michael Kennedy as the wife-haunted patient in Shining City (Circa) and from veteran Jeffrey Thomas as the damaged idealist Astrov in Uncle Vanya (Circa). Sadly, we have almost certainly seen the last of the wonderful K C Kelly, who, after a brief final hurrah as Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy, has returned to the US.

Best actress This year brought many shining performances. These included: Toi Whakaari student Sophie Hambleton's doomed Thomasina (Arcadia); newcomer Jodie Hillock's mercurial Sophie (Home Land); Jess Robinson's put-upon Stella (A Streetcar Named Desire, Circa); Jennifer Ludlum's tender Emilia (in an otherwise underwhelming Othello, Downstage); Emma Kinane's calorifically challenged Helen (Fat Pig, Circa); and Rachel Forman's abused Una (Blackbird, Circa). Brightest and best was Mel Dodge, whose heart-twisting Sonya stole the show in Uncle Vanya.

Goose-bumpiest moment At the close of Shining City, a shadowy figure appears suddenly behind the door. We realise with a shudder that a new haunting is about to begin.

Best director Short list: Willem Wassenaar, Angels in America; Jonathan Hendry, The Hollow Men; Jane Waddell, Home Land. Winner: Jane Waddell for a nuance-perfect Home Land.

Best production Disappointment of the year was definitely the Royal Shakespeare Company's ponderous King Lear (despite getting to see Ian McKellen with "tackle out"). The Bacchanals' no-frills version (with Erin Banks doubling as Cordelia and the Fool), though uneven, was both more moving and more shocking. In their different ways, Angels in America, Blackbird, Shining City, The Hollow Men, The Winslow Boy and Uncle Vanya each compelled the imagination, but few would deny that, in a strong (rather than golden) year for Wellington theatre, the Chapman Tripp-winning Home Land carried all before it.

==AUCKLAND - Natasha Hay==

Best production At the risk of ruffling feathers, my pick is the Royal Shakespeare Company's The Seagull - a beautiful production in which each of the 21 actors gave finely nuanced performances of such depth and subtlety that it was a joy to behold. It was a rare treat to have the RSC breeze through and display their fine ensemble work.

Best local production Sure, grim economics have limited the size of theatre here where it's nigh on impossible to form long-running companies, but the ATC did splash out on The Crucible - a hefty cast of 23 - as its 15th-year birthday treat, and it's my choice for best local production. Gripping, stimulating and with a risky design concept that made it a Crucible for our times. Runners-up: Dying City and Three Days of Rain. Small, perfectly formed and enthralling; par for the course with Silo shows.

Best directors ATC helmsman Colin McColl for Hatch and The Crucible; Silo helmsman Shane Bosher for Dying City and Three Days of Rain. They're both local treasures.

Best new play Geoff Chapple's one-man play Hatch: a vivid encounter with our history - penguin oil rendering, who knew? - and a theatrical tour-de-force. The audience was transported back to the 1920s and the old man's magic-lantern lectures in a fascinating insight into the disgraced entrepreneur and his times. Runner-up: Victor Rodger's very clever My Name Is Gary Cooper; Samoan theatre goes to Hollywood. A shamelessly sexy revenge comedy that toys mischievously with the noble savage myth.

Best design Tracy Grant Lord for The Crucible. Her stunning set evoked an oppressive, claustrophobic menace. With its abstract framework of a puritan dwelling, a giant spike stabbed through the centre and macrocarpa trees floating above, it was a potent metaphor. Runner-up: John Verryt for Three Days of Rain, an ingenious use of Silo's space with pouring rain and beaded curtains.

Best actor Stuart Devenie as Joseph Hatch Esq, a virtuosic solo performance. By the time the silver-tongued "Victorian villain" puts the motion seeking support for his cause - to reinstate his licence to manufacture penguin oil on Macquarie Island - we are almost ready to vote against the penguins. Devenie lives and breathes the man, to the very ends of his walrus moustache. Runner-up: Edwin Wright in Dying City as twins Peter and Craig. Such a subtle performance that, even without a change of shirt, you know which of the two is present.

Best actress Ellie Smith as Miss Judy Garland (ATC's End of the Rainbow), a star performance. She gets right under the skin of the Ritalin-fuelled diva-on-the-edge: funny, inspirational and tragic. Smith can sing as well as she can act. Runner-up: Dena Kennedy in Dying City: grief made palpable and the most expressive eyes in town.

Best emerging actor Morgana O'Reilly in Bare (Silo), the vehicle that catapulted Madeleine Sami's career.

Best fun Silo's The Mystery of Irma Vep with dazzling show-offs Oliver Driver and Michael Hurst cross-dressing and corpsing. (Top marks to the Silo for picking shows people want to see.) Runner-up: Paul Barrett's wig in End of the Rainbow.

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