Circa Theatre’s “Dead Tragic” a life-enhancing experience

Circa Theatre presents:
by Michael Nicholas Williams

Cast: Emma Kinane / Jon Pheloung
Lyndee-Jane Rutherford / Darren Young
Michael Nicholas Williams

Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Lighting Designer: Glenn Ashworth
Costume Designer: Maryanne Cathro
Set Design: Barnaby Kinane Williams

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday, 22nd November, 2014

That old wizard of stage and screen, Noel Coward, was right when he famously quipped, “….how extraordinarily POTENT cheap music is……” – that is, if the response of the “half-century-onwards” hearts that were pumping and pulsating throughout Circa Theatre’s startlingly in-your-face “Dead Tragic” collection of truly-and-tragically-dreadful 1970s songs was anything to go by.

In fact that opening sentence gives you an idea of some of the convolutions of the lyrics which my particular generation swallowed, hook, line and sinker with the syrupy tunes, while on its collective knees to the blandishments of the pop industry and to commercial radio – here were some of the most coruscating examples of the genre, come back to haunt us, just when we thought it was safe to let our guards down and peer backwards through the generational mists.

Thankfully, we are compartmentalised beings! – and so while it was, in a sense, out-and-out, long-overdue cultural death by nostalgia for some of our more superannuated neuron-clusters, other, more robust parts of us came through the experience, phoenix-like, cleansed and strengthened, ready to face a brighter and fresher generation of “the same but different” – if my teenaged son’s current “You-tube” manifestations are anything to go by.

But at Circa, after I’d squared up to the actual confrontations with these realities, and subsequently took stock of the outcomes, I found myself echoing the aforementioned, redoubtable Sir Noel in my musings – “What treasures! – what hot-wire experiences! – what visceral juices set a-bubbling! – what delight, and what laughter!” – and, finally and surprisingly – “What days they were!”

As that iconic Kiwi, Fred Dagg, might have expostulated (though not to be confused with home-brew, or some other such thing) – “Talk about potent, Trev!” – some of these songs carried their potency with the pin-pointedness of a truth serum. Despite the inevitable lampooning, some of the original associations evoked were specifically time-and-place, rather like when people are able to remember where they were when hearing the news of The Beatles breakup, or the deaths of Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Evis Presley or John Lennon.

So, these thoughts were all leapfrogging in my head as I sat in the midst of an obviously delighted Circa audience, while song followed song and joy and delight followed surprise and excitement! Here were five on-stage performers, four whose business was singing and acting (Emma Kinane, Jon Pheloung, Lyndee-Jane Rutherford and Darren Young) and a musical director (Michael Nicholas Williams), a power at the keyboard, an extra voice when needed, both solo and in the ensemble – here was so much for the entertainment of so many presented by so few!

But what powerhouses they all were! – right from the opening “Delilah” delivered by Jon Pheloung with libido-laden bodily pulsations and vocalizations impressive on both aural and visual counts, backed to the hilt with impressively harmonized chorus reprises from the supporting trio, and flailing figurations in thirds from the “backing group”, we were properly confronted with the world of “truly, madly, deeply” – and ultimately, “tragic and deadly”.

To go through each song would stretch my emotional repercharge to breaking-point and exhaust my poor stock of superlatives in no time at all! – naturally enough, there were places where all of my needles “peaked”, though I can’t remember a single item that didn’t work on its own terms. Part of the fun was  in the performers’ adroit juxtapositioning of the “straight” with the “parody”, the heartfelt with the satirical –  the mix was never predictable in its bias or degree of intensity, making for edge-of-seat expectation both prior to and during some of the numbers.

Some numbers suffered out-and-out lampooning, to everybody’s utter delight – “Seasons in the Sun”, which, admittedly, could have been played “straight” to risible effect, was here subjected to a most deservedly deconstructivist treatment, Darren Young revelling in the comic opportunities for a “deathbed farewell farce” complete with the obligatory sign from heaven in the form of a cross.

Though the songs were all American, with some of the realizations there seemed more than a touch of the home-grown haunting the presentation aspect in places  – both “Nobody’s Child” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” featured Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s engagingly “ordinary Kiwi sheila” in the limelight, accustomed or otherwise, in the former making the most of her five minutes of plaintive fame, cross-eyed with concentrated focus, while in the latter valiantly doing without any fairy godmother in preparation for her desperately-planned bouts of adulterous acquiescence, with some excruciatingly uncomfortable bodily hair removal procedures.

A nice touch at half-time was the pushing-over towards centre-stage of the giant record-player-arm, whose head had doubled as a coffin at some stage or other (and would do so again!), signifying that  “Side One” had been completed! – set designer Barnaby Kinane-Williams deserved a pat on the back for that particular inspiration! Then Emma Kinane and Darren Young got the “flip side” away to a marvellously schmaltzy piece of quasi-ethnicity with “Running Bear” (was I hearing things, or did the audience’s toe-tapping reach hitherto undisturbed levels of intensity during this catchy number?) – whatever the case, it all impressively morphed into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, our amusement tempered with real appreciation of the group’s part-singing harmonizing, and the imaginative staging, with the ghostly, disembodied faces.

As with all classy entertainments, there were terraced intensities – even more deconstructionist that “Seasons in the Sun” was the ensemble’s response to “Darling Jane”, a song whose scenario and lyrics were surely the stuff of legends, epitomizing as they did the most mindless banalities known to Tin Pan Alley – this was Musical Director Michael Nicholas Williams’s one real chance to shine in a starring vocal role, an opportunity nicely scuppered by the storm-tossed palm fronds manipulated by Emma Kinane and Lyndee-Jane Rutherford, mercilessly flailing the stage’s upper reaches, a space inhabited also by Williams’s head!

Against these objects of “harmless merriment” were the spectrum’s opposite-end songs, ones which, despite their understandable contextual capacity to amuse, couldn’t help but also impinge with a good deal of their original pathos, the most outstanding being “In the Ghetto”, which, for all its well-worn rhetoric remains a powerful and disturbing social statement – perhaps only “The Green Green Grass of Home” matched it for raw emotional power, however well-worn the terrain. This all-encompassing aspect of the show served only to remind us that things are because of their diametric opposites – and the definitions thus provided are of their own inverse value.

So, it was with grateful appreciation for the talents of those onstage performers, in tandem with Glenn Ashworth’s lighting, Maryanne Cathro’s consumes and Barnaby Kinane Williams’ set designs that we put our hands together and our feet repeatedly on the floor at the show’s end, satisfied with our lot, and enjoying the reactivation of all those ghostly resonances of times past, come back to tell us how important they actually are.



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