Reviewed by Shauwn Keil.
Upon entering the theatre, we are treated to a magnificent set, designed by Jasmine Bryham. Everything that reminds you of Nana and Poppa’s house is present. Jars of God knows what across the kitchen bench. A kettle and cool mugs. Dinner set items. A paua shell ashtray on a shelf on the right. Newspaper spread on the larger table. Even a cheeky sewing kit pretending to be a biscuit tin. The set invokes nostalgia for me, and combined with the little more than ambient nature sounds (presumably put together by composer Raven Harvey-Lomas) I feel like I’m probably sitting in a rural New Zealand home rather than next to the K-Fry on Cambridge Terrace. The lights (Matilde Vadseth Furholm) feel quite eerie, I’ll say now that this is maintained through the course of the production with very little changes to the lighting. You are held in one state for the most part without a blackout, and for my taste personally, it’s a fitting and excellent choice. Anyway, I’m looking too far forward. I’m sitting there like “woah, I can’t wait to see how we go.”
The play does start in the dark, and we first meet Samantha and Richard Hale, played by Abby Lyons and Oliver Knott respectively. The first things I notice are a pregnant baby belly, one that Lyons sustains the effects of perfectly throughout the productions entirety, and a bit of word slurring. As diction picks up for the most part carrying on, I can look at this, perhaps, as a shared actors choice of showing the given circumstances of arriving late and being tired. There is a gag of banging the small table set up early, which I’m a sucker for – though I crave more surprise.
Three other characters make their way on to the stage, and sadly this is where I start to see performance clashes, confusing the overall style a little. Constable David (Sean Burnett-Dugdale Martin) and Officer Murray (Will Toon) make for a good dumb and dumber cop pairing. Sean in particular holds an impressive and resonant voice, commanding attention in all of his moments on stage. I felt, however, that while these characters earned a bit of levity and defused tension well in moments that were necessary, less caricature would have made for a more cohesive performance between the cast. I did not feel like they were quite from the same world and as a result, some moments of tension were missed in favour of humor that didn’t land.
As drama unfolds, it is lovely to watch life exist around the main focus. Sam and Angela Peters (Ottilie Bleackley, also Dramaturg) making tea in the kitchen while the narrative continues is a great example of keeping the world alive beyond the dialogue we hear from another character. I would even ask for more opportunities like this. Could a character be reading the newspaper and checking back in to the conversation once in a while? Did that pot want to go back in to the sink? Even so, it’s small things like making a cuppa that reinforce the idea of a naturalistic setting. This gets a golden tick.
Anyway, we get our first lighting change while the story plays out a silhouette on a black curtain with a tungsten back light. A beautiful effect, missing a little energy. Sharon Wright (Lily Wright, also Costume Designer) holds our focus in these silhouette moments, playing out the tragedy. What’s consistent in each return to the silhouette is rushing. As we don’t get to see what is being reacted to, just a little more air around the actors discoveries would chill our bones all the more. Future red light and spooky sound set this up nicely, we just need that third part of the unholy trinity for a truly memorable moment.
Mentions of Country Calendar, Facebook, Cellphones and the overall aesthetic of the play leave me uncertain of what time period we are in – it’s possible I missed a direct mention. But I won’t push on through the entire story. I will say that I found this adaptation to be wonderful on paper. Alia Marshall (Writer, Director) has crafted a beautiful piece touching on sexism in rural New Zealand, and really, in general. Not only the toxic displays of it from the fuzz and Dick, but the heart-breaking effects that it has on the women shown in conversation.
I’m not just talking about the “you should smile more” fedora type (not that that doesn’t totally suck either), I mean the intense stuff you wince at and struggle to imagine because you don’t think you have any male friends who would be capable of it. Being able to see conversations take place on the subject only to be brought down when the men return really irks me, in a way that I believe it was meant to. My friend commented that he didn’t feel like these problems exist anymore and that there’s little point addressing them without a solution. “How much awareness can you bring if you don’t have an answer?” I couldn’t disagree more and we debated this for a good while after the show. While he wasn’t on board, I think it’s important for people in that mindset to view such content, in fact, I’d go a step further and say that they need it the most. Theatre challenges and we need more audiences to challenge – scary as that may seem.
The blocking is dope, I got a good sense of the director’s vision and choices made through the intentional blocking. All I could ask for is a bit more commitment at times from actors to move with the same intent. I know I am being quite picky in the performance department, and it comes from a place of seeing the high potential of this play and how much further a team effort could have brought the production. Make no mistake, I enjoyed my time in the theatre and I’ll reiterate that the script was fantastic. I think the main thing is unifying the cast on what we are wanting to achieve, making sure we are generous actors selling another scene partner’s performance in our reactions rather than looking for our own glorious moments in them, and fighting the urge to rush. Even in moments of pause, a little breathing wouldn’t go amiss. Everything is already there to turn this play from good to great, and great to truly memorable.
This was the closing performance of Trifles at BATS Theatre, and it was abundantly clear that the team put a lot of heart in to this production. Criticisms aside, I couldn’t help but smile with them all during the bows, it was one of the sweetest things I’d seen. I would sincerely love to catch another version of this play, and I look forward to seeing future works from Heartbreaker Productions. Peace homie.