THE PINK HAMMER – a play by Michele Amas
Circa Theatre, Wellington
Director: Conrad Newport
Louise Anne Chamberlain
Helen Ginette McDonald
Siobhan Harriet Prebble
Woody Alex Greig
Annabel Bronwyn Turei
Set and Costume Design – Daniel Williams
Lighting Design – Tony Black
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington
Tuesday, 10th September, 2019 (until 5th October)
Author of “The Pink Hammer”, playwright Michele Amas – also an actor, theatre director and poet – died at the very end of 2016, after a 30-year career in television, radio and theatre. Towards the end of her career she turned her hand increasingly to writing, to poetry and for the theatre, producing firstly a pantomime, and then a play, the present production, premiered in 2014 at Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre. She described “the Pink Hammer”, her own work, as “outrageous, laughter-filled, and heartwarming”, a judgement confirmed by a review of that first production, which succinctly described the play’s action as “what happens to a bloke when his man’s shed is taken over by four women who want to get their hands on his tools”.
I saw Michele Amas act only once, in her second of two appearances, 25 years apart (!) in Robert Lord’s Joyful and Triumphant, her portrayal “owning” the character wholly, as she had reportedly done a different character the first time round – I thought her acting “sensitive, low-keyed, but deeply-wrought….”, indicating across the roles of writer and actor something of the command of an impressive range of sensibility and response in her theatrical makeup.
On the face of things (the title included), “The Pink Hammer” was a kind of rollicking “Girls can do anything” presentation intended to further the cause of women’s equality, in this case depicting a scenario of a group of women infiltrating an overtly-regarded bastion of maleness. Stereotypes of all kinds abounded at the outset of the play’s action, such as the setting, a “dedicated” man-hole – in this case a handyman’s shed, replete with tools of the “trade”, along with the presence of various “stimulants” associated with a bloke’s relaxation after a job well done, including liquid refreshment (beer in a fridge), erotica (a pin-up calendar) and entertainment (television). Into this “holy-of-holies” came four women, introducing themselves one-by-one, each a distinctive (if recognisable) personality, all driven by different needs to attempt to acquaint themselves with the use of carpenter’s tools.
Straightaway the tensions began winding in unexpected ways as we discovered that the basic carpentry “workshop” was to have been held by another woman, Maggie, who seemed meantime to have taken herself off somewhere unexpectedly, putting her hitherto unsuspecting husband, Woody (engagingly and convincingly given the full “Kiwi bloke” treatment by Alex Greig), in the “gun seat” as the unwilling, in fact, initially downright hostile, would-be instructor. It was left to one of the women, Helen (Ginette McDonald, with a masterly, no-nonsense display of compelling persuasiveness), having observed evidence of a certain illicit activity on Woody’s part, to slyly convince him of the face-saving efficacy of “taking over” as the workshop’s saviour, in the process matter-of-factly revealing her particular and singular motivation for acquiring woodworking skills.
We had by this stage gleaned the extent of the variety of personality “types” depicted by these four wannabe woodworker women! – Ginette McDonald’s hard-bitten Helen didn’t take long to mercilessly anatomise the painful awkwardness of Anne Chamberlain’s well-meaning but gauche and insecure Louise in their characters’ initial interactions. However. the gulf between the two was then heartwarmingly “packed in” by the irrepressible sunniness of the young Irish colleen Siobhan (winningly and liltingly – a beautiful singing voice – portrayed by Harriet Prebble). Her attractive amalgam of youthful exuberance and not-quite-innocent suggestibility made for plenty of theatrical conundrumming in itself, let alone when set against the “straight-down-the-line” feminism of the guidance counseller, Annabel – Bronwyn Turei’s initial strength and energy made the hidden vulnerability of the latter’s character all the more touching when revealed.
In adding Alex Greig’s delightfully “gung-ho” (if all too human) exuberance as Woody to this already richly-wrought mix, one had a recipe for interaction replete with possibility, especially when his initial hostility began to erode for various reasons……perhaps there were sequences in which Amas’s writing did in places over-favour words at the expense of action, as has been suggested elsewhere, but this cast had the vocal energies as well as the physical fluidities to make everything seem as if in mid-stream, rather than caught in eddyings that impaired the flow. In fact I couldn’t have imagined the play’s dialogue and movement better done than here, a tribute not only to the playwright and the actors, but to director Conrad Newport, who, of course, directed the premiere at Centrepoint in Palmerston North, and most surely brought the full force of that previous experience to bear on this undertaking.
The different motivations that brought each of the women to enlist in the course gradually revealed themselves, enriching, and emboldening them in their different ways. One found oneself focusing increasingly on each of the characters as unique individuals at least as much as registering their “cause” and its accompanying polemic, all of their personalities, including Woody’s, both uncovering and being uncovered. Each of the journeyings had its own profundity, though the playwright adroitly kept our emotions sufficiently balanced with a “tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the mind” quality leavening the action for as long as was needed for the story’s purposes.
Daniel Williams’ set and costume designs seemed at once contemporary and timeless in their evocations, the objects representing a mix of up-to-date technologies (“apps” on cell-phones, and nail-guns are two that come to mind) with traditional, iconic standard items such as saw-horses! And Tony Black’s lighting unerringly evoked an appropriately utilitarian quality, bright, analytical and pitiless at full strength, and with an unnerving, almost “concentration camp” kind of aspect when illuminated from the outside, adding to the feeling of something “alien” or “dream-like” about various of the action’s happenings.
I came away from the production with two enduring feelings – firstly that I’d witnessed what seemed almost like an effortless sense of identification on the part of each of the actors with their characters, so that the former “were” who their characters were (and, as importantly, were people I felt I knew and could readily recognise and/or identify with, all or in part). Secondly, that sense of “connection” spoken about by director Conrad Newport was richly, if subtly, reflected in the way the actors were an “ensemble”, again something that seemed entirely natural and inevitable, but was obviously the result of an art that concealed art. That such strong and vivid individual characterisations could jell so readily and unselfconsciously suggests a singular alchemy at work, here satisfyingly and memorably provided by the playwright, the actors and the director in spadefuls. And, after all, glimpses of ourselves are always worth seeing…..