Theatre stalwart Alison Quigan ponders how her latest Roger Hall-penned role is a case of art imitating death.
The commercial, promoting a funeral insurance business, offers a basic premise. If your final farewell is covered, family and friends won’t be sobbing over anything but their grief.
The ad avoids the “D” word, using phrases like “pop your clogs” and “head off upstairs”, but death creeps like a cloud through Roger Hall’s new play, Winding Up, starring Quigan and fellow theatre stalwart Mark Hadlow.
The production, which opens at the Auckland Theatre Company this week before touring four North Island cities, is a sequel to his perennial hit Conjugal Rites, which first introduced us to married couple Barry and Gen 30 years ago.
Back then, Barry was a dentist, Gen a newly graduated lawyer, and they were grappling with midlife, middle-class crises such as infidelities and workloads.
Now, they are retirees in their late seventies, living comfortably in an apartment and trying to ignore the prospect of heading off upstairs.
Because it’s written by Hall, it’s a comedy, says Quigan, but, she warns, “beneath the comedy is the tragedy”. As a clue, there’s a wheelchair in the ATC’s rehearsal space.
“Oh, yeah,” says Quigan. “One of the characters is dying. It’s how they deal with that, winding up that person’s life.”
Offstage, that has already included a ruthless cull of possessions before Barry and Gen moved into their too-tidy apartment – about four years ago, according to the script.
“There is a big scene about Marie Kondo [the Japanese decluttering guru], so it’s been clothes and books and dealing with her sister’s situation,” says Quigan. “Her sister’s husband has died and their joint account is frozen, so ‘they are not prepared, these people’. Whereas Gen and Barry are prepared, or so they think.”
When Winding Up opens, Gen and Barry are about to embark on their last big trip: a cruise. “Insurance is a nightmare!” laughs Quigan. “We see them go off, then we see them come back. You see pictures of them having a lovely time, and then something happens.”
Winding Up may be 80-year-old Hall’s final instalment in a series about the cheery subject of ageing, opening with Who Wants to be 100? (2007), featuring four people in a secure dementia unit who were once top achievers.
“They spoke directly to the audience in their own voice and then when they spoke to each other, it was just garbage,” says Quigan.
Last Legs (2016) focused on a miserable pack of residents in a retirement village. “They downsized and found themselves living in a community almost in a forced way,” says Quigan. “It was like going to school for the first time, people you don’t want to live with and the only way out was to die.”
As a self-described “jobbing” actor and director, she directed seasons of Conjugal Rites two years in a row at Centrepoint that were so popular she cast herself third time around.
She became Shortland Street matriarch Yvonne Jeffries from 2004-11, and moved to Auckland about a decade ago, where she has been performing arts manager at Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku since 2013.
At last count she has worked, as an actor or director, in 15 Roger Hall – Sir Roger Hall, she says with a grin – productions.
Hall’s plays are reliable box-office boosters but he has also faced the charge that his characters are stereotypes: white, middle-aged, middle-class New Zealanders. “Yeah, it can be,” says Quigan. But she’s heard it all before.
“I saw Glide Time [Hall’s 1976 theatre debut] before I started training as an actor. I was working as a typist at the university and it was like, ‘Who’s got my stapler?’ It was the minutiae. I remember thinking, ‘He’s watching us.’ Since then, he has followed that particular generation right through to now – their foibles, triumphs, obsessions – and he makes us laugh at things that are maybe unlaughable. The thing is, you do see somebody who you get to know get right to the end. It is fly on the wall, a slice of life.
“We are going to rest homes and retirement villages when we tour this play,” she adds. “It’s quite a big group of people at that age, in terms of white middle-class. I guess he writes in a specific way but, when you’re specific, it becomes universal.
“The audience expects to laugh. But they also know that underneath that there is depth. Our job is to constantly ride that fine line so it is funny and sad. You can only rehearse about three-quarters of Roger’s plays, and then you listen to the audience. You are always waiting to see if they are going to laugh.
“Yes, the play is about deteriorating at the end of life, but it’s kind of quite hopeful – at the beginning.”
Winding Up: Auckland’s ASB Waterfront Theatre, Feb 11-March 8; Hawke’s Bay Arts & Events Centre, Hastings, March 11-12; Hamilton’s Clarence St Theatre, March 16-17; New Plymouth’s TSB Showplace, March 20-21; Tauranga’s Baycourt Arts Centre, March 25-26.
This article was first published in the February 15, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.