Roger Hall’s “terrific couple” at last back on stage in Wellington – “Winding Up” at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Winding Up , written by Sir Roger Hall
and directed by Susan Wilson

Featuring Ginette McDonald (Gen) and  Peter Hayden (Barry)

Set and AV Design – Lisa Maule
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Costumes – Sheila Horton
Music and Soundscape – Michael Nicholas Williams
Technical Operator – Niamh Campbell-Ward
Stage/Production Manager – Deb McGuire

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Sunday, 1st June, 2021 (until 28th August)

Sir Roger Hall’s “Winding Up”, an exploration of love weathering age and untoward circumstance, has finally made the stage at Circa Theatre, over a year after being first scheduled and then waylaid by Covid-19 and Lockdown. This afternoon its performance by Ginette McDonald and Peter Hayden as the play’s two characters, Gen and Barry, flickered all about to begin with, gradually warmed, then connected with, and finished up conflagrating an appreciative audience.

Its unfolding all somehow reminded me of pianist Artur Rubinstein’s account of first going to hear Russian classical superstar Sviatoslav Richter play  – “I thought at first the playing was nothing special – then I realised that tears were actually rolling down my cheeks….”Similarly, Hall’s window-view of “us” gradually penetrated our reserve, awoke our recognitions, tickled our fancies, engaged our sympathies and touched our hearts, giving us more and more “moments per minute” as we delved deeper and deeper into what were, either by direct experience or dint of association, our own lives.

For this reason, it’s very much a play one would ideally share with someone rather than view alone – I was grateful to go with a long-standing friend with whom, by dint of shared sideways glances, wry gesturings and occasional in-tandem chortles and spontaneous comments, I could relish the shared recognitions and empathies generated by the action’s plethora of impulses and nuances via word and gesture. And if not quite “tears rolling down my cheeks” I certainly registered, towards the end, some lump-in-throat moments, making the recognitions and empathies apparent. The playwright’s own attitude to his characters was summed up during a 2019 radio interview as “a terrific couple”, Hall adding that “Anybody in a long-term relationship recognises them and what they talk and argue about”.

Gen and Barry are two retirees, septuagenerians very much in “what’s next?” mode, and equally as much dealing with the “life is what happens when you’re planning something else” phenomenon that happens in the best families – and which certainly brings the same dynamic to bear on the action throughout the evening. The genesis of these two characters sprang from an earlier Hall play, Conjugal Rites, which featured the same Gen and Barry thirty years before, on the point of celebrating their 21st wedding anniversary, and about to examine their marriage, their children and their respective occupations, dealing with both a balance of power change in the relationship (Gen becoming a practising solicitor) and infidelities on both sides (Barry with one of his dental patients, and Jen with a fellow-solicitor), issues that the present play revisit, albeit with passage-of-time mitigating philosophical perspectives.

Are the preoccupations, idiosyncrasies, quips, jokes and life-issues showing signs of wearing thin after thirty years? It’s almost as though Hall has written a kind of “laundered” quality into the first exchanges, something of an implicit “how many times have we heard that one” feeling, which is as much about style as content – like having to gradually get on someone’s “wavelength” so as to fully appreciate what is said (and “how”, as well, incidentally). Ginette McDonald as Gen conveys this nonchalance in her exchanges with Peter Hayden’s well-practised (and nicely “in-character theatrical”) delivery as Barry with a casual brilliance that leaves one open-mouthed with admiration. Opposite her, Peter Hayden’s Barry is something of a “performer”, with a certain command (perhaps historically occupational?) of repartee – “You’ll have to speak up – I’ve got my hearing aids in!” he quips to his daughter during a ‘phone call. Their differences reinforce an “opposites attract” quality that manifests itself elsewhere in their exchanges, more of which below.

As the business of ageing crowds in over the course of the play one realises just how “in tune” the couple are despite their differences – McDonald’s characteristic no-nonsense style as Gen complements Hayden’s ostensible heart-on-sleeve manner for Barry, revealing a “vive la difference” quality of being and doing in an arrangement that has worked long-term, despite the speed-bumps and the debilitating temporary detours along the way. Neither has been diminished by the other in the long haul – perhaps for some people a cloud-cuckoo-land scenario that falls apart in the face of harsher realities, but (on the basis of art suggesting an example for, rather than merely imitating, life) it’s a depiction that’s life-enhancing, and therefore a worthwhile, “act of theatre” to take in and ponder.

The issues are classic and resonantly recognisable, some even from a distance! – they range from individual attitudes to possessions (Barry is a “hoarder” whose responses to enjoiners from Gen to “downsize” regarding clothes and books are priceless! – “My ideal life-style is a mess!” he expostulates at one point!), to sex (a spontaneous “making-out on the shag pile” episode elicits “last of the Mohicans/end of the drought?/in the bed or out here?” comments from both of them as the embers are raked over to risibly indeterminate but still touching effect!) and to dancing to “their” music (“The first time I ever saw your face” to which Gen and Barry dance so touchingly and tenderly – and I think here of my own parents dancing foxtrots and twosteps to Mills Brothers’ tunes) – the music might be dated, but the shared enjoyment is timeless…)

The play’s “elephant in the room” isn’t one really, but it’s all-pervading enough to both “figure” and be “disregarded”, taking cues from the couple’s laudably ornery attitude to the news at the action’s beginning that Barry has been tentatively diagnosed with leukemia. The couple’s plans for a longed-for visit to see distant grandchildren are put under stress and jeopardy – though the outcomes at least didn’t at that time have to deal with Covid-19 as a factor. Funeral plans come into reckoning, then, the situation further pushed near the bone when news of Gen’s brother-in-law’s unexpected death arrives, necessitating the couple’s attendance at a funeral, and inevitable post-funeral talk – not here, but much later, Barry confesses to Gen that, were there “menus” for methods of dying, his preferred choice would be “to wake up dead!”

So, there’s much, and more, to take in from this script which, as I’ve already indicated, felt to me as if it moved from superficial exchange at the beginning to almost Faustian transcendence at the end, where one is confronted with a strangely dream-like set of scenarios in which time, matter and energy are redeployed. Hall here brings his play’s characters to their apotheosis in unforgettably iconic “Goodnight Kiwi” fashion, ensuring their immortality, while keeping us suspended in conjecture as to “what was happening”, as great art is wont to do…….

Credit needs to be articulated in many directions for all of this, firstly to director Susan Wilson for settings and dynamics that had here an inevitability of perspective, seeming to know what to bind and what to loosen, where to space out and where to hone in, and what to specify and what to leave to us to “figure”. Hand-in-glove with all of this was Lisa Maule’s set whose centrepiece was the painting with the “iconic” Wellington Harbour view, complete with Matiu/Soames Island and the resplendent Rimutaka Ranges in the background. Marcus McShane’s on-the-button lighting caught every atmospheric and dynamic nuance, while Sheila Horton’s costumes were everything one might expect from people of this couple’s socio-economic status. And I loved the music, particularly the dance  sequence of “The First Time I ever saw your Face”, which, as Noel Coward might have observed, “took” us, along with the others with surprising potency backwards to times and places, demonstrating the sure touch of Music and Soundscape designer Michael Nicholas Williams.

There’s been a suggestion that this work might be Sir Roger Hall’s swansong as a dramatist – if so we in New Zealand will be the poorer in no longer having “updated” portraits and scenarios from his perceptive sensibilities of people and things we know but perhaps can’t find the words to express for ourselves, or in such a recognisable way. We owe him a great debt of thanks.


Nailing it with Style – Circa’s “The Pink Hammer” a delightful and moving tribute to playwright Michele Amas

THE PINK HAMMER – a play by Michele Amas
Circa Theatre, Wellington

Director: Conrad Newport
Cast :
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…..






Still “waiting”, with time ticking away for humanity – “Waiting for Godot” at Circa Theatre, Wellington

Circa Theatre presents: “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett

CAST:  Estragon  –  Jeff Kingsford-Brown
Vladimir  – Andrew Foster
Pozzo  –  Peter Hambleton
Lucky  –  Jack Buchanan
Boy  –  Alex Buyck

Director  –  Ross Jolly
Set Designer –  Andrew Foster
Lighting Designer  –  Marcus McShane
Costume Designer   –  Sheila Horton

Circa Theatre,
I Taranaki St, Wellington

Saturday, 4th May 2019

(until 1st June 2019)

It’s interesting that my first, completely “out of the blue” experience of “Waiting for Godot” was provided some time during the mid-1960s, by a group of actors who called themselves “The Southern Comedy Players”, a foursome if I remember, who frequently toured the country’s secondary schools, and fortunately for me, had our school in Palmerston North “on their list”. The group performed excerpts from various plays, presenting a wide range, including classics (Goldsmith – “She Stoops to Conquer”), New Zealand works (Mason – “The Pohutukawa Tree”), and twentieth-century works (Beckett – “Waiting for Godot”).

I saw this group perform in their “school visits” context at least twice, and perhaps even three times over those years – but the trio of presentations mentioned above are the ones that have stuck in my memory. The name of the troupe “The Southern Comedy Players”, and the droll, whimsical humour of what I remember of the “Waiting for Godot” excerpt on that occasion indelibly etched in my brain the idea that Samuel Beckett’s play was indeed a kind of bizarre, bare-bones comedy. I would imagine that the performance on that occasion would have shared many of the qualities I enjoyed in Circa Theatre’s new production, most strikingly of all, a laconic, home-grown, “she’ll be right” way with the engaging characterisations of the two major protagonists, Estragon and Vladimir.

In fact my initial reaction here to the personas and interactions of each of these characters was a kind of “Hang on a minute, mate/One of Us” familiarity, as if both Vladimir and Estragon had wandered out of the pages of the Sam Cash novels by Barry Crump, the “everyman” characters fitted out both visually and vocally with a rugged, old-fashioned Kiwi context, however skin-deep. I somehow “knew” them of old, and reflected as the play’s essential inactions mirrored, refracted and regurgitated throughout how those archetypal Kiwi blokes had, in Beckett’s hands, become emasculated by the enactment of what seemed like a never-ending ritual of “waiting for Godot”.

Whomever Godot is or was, we in the audience never found out – the “waiting” consisted instead of a variety of discussions, mostly between Estragon and Vladimir, interrupted by encounters in each of the two Acts with a man and his servant, and also with a boy, the latter telling them on each of his appearances that Godot could not come “today” but would come “tomorrow” instead. We were left at the very end with the omnipresence of the play’s “theme” of essential inaction brought about by the “waiting”, when both men agreed to leave – but neither moved!

So, like figures performing a slow dance, the two characters pirouetted painstakingly through the play’s two Acts, one for each day, displaying with both word and action what seemed like endless preoccupation with minutae, every so often punctuating their exchanges with resonances that promised much but led to little (Vladimir’s Biblical reference to the two thieves crucified with Christ, for instance, or the inconsistencies between the four Gospel accounts regarding the thieves’ presence). Uncertainties abounded – the place, the time, the objects, the circumstances – everything mentioned was unconfirmed, made more nebulous than it was before being mentioned – For example, what day was it? Saturday? – Or Sunday? Or Monday? Or Friday!? Was the tree where they were to meet Godot really a tree? Or a bush? – perhaps a shrub? Were they here yesterday? What did they do, yesterday? Did they recognise the place? Did it make any difference?

These two “chapters” of dysfunctional connectivity between co-dependent characters were similarly interrupted by two ”arrivals”, firstly by a kind of master-servant pair roped together, respectively Pozzo and Lucky; and then by a boy bring the news of Godot’s “postponement” of the promised rendezvous with Estragon and Vladimir. Of the master-servant combination, Pozzo’s portly, well-heeled figure presented a stark contrast with that of Lucky, who, though dressed more as a carnival-performer-cum punk-rocker complete with bleached-blonde hair, appeared to be his slave. Pozzo’s cruel and disdainful treatment of Lucky, tethered at the end of a rope, made for directly uncomfortable watching, as did Lucky’s almost shell-shocked obedience of Pozzo’s every curtly-delivered command. The former’s sickening obsequiousness was allayed for a few spectacularly-delivered moments of maniacal speech and dance, outpourings of controlled energy which justly earned the actor a round of impulsive applause from an agog audience!

The reappearance of these two in the Second Act reversed their situations, with Pozzo having gone blind and Lucky guiding him while taking refuge in dumbness, Pozzo’s previous overbearing manner now replaced with humility and some insight (in the play as a whole there are a handful of parallels of this kind –  the vagabonds’ reflections on “nothing to be done”, Estragon’s thoughts of madness, and Pozzo’s blindness – with Shakespeare’s King Lear). In stark contrast to all of this  was the fresh-faced, straightforwardly-spoken boy messenger from the enigmatic Godot, a ray of equable sunshine on each of his appearances, when compared to the idiosyncratic tramps, Estregon and Vladimir, and the almost hallucinatory pairing of Pozzo and Lucky. How Beckett was able to imbue his work with so distinct an “everyman” quality via characters of such idiosyncrasy and grotesquerie is one of the miracles wrought by both a playwright’s skills and the theatre’s transforming power of suspended (and, here, metaphoric) belief.

All of this was realised for us with a directness of presentation in its sight, sound and general physicality which brooked no interference with whatever messages we in the audience chose to receive. Designer Andrew Foster put us in the action’s space, with everything clearly and mercilessly-focused – not especially rugged, but satisfyingly bleak, and in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, a tree and a block of concrete-like material forward of a suggested pathway running along the upstage. In tandem with Marcus McShane’s unambiguous, implacably advancing “day’s journey into night” lighting, the scenario unerringly conveyed a feeling of the characters’ utter helplessness against and subjection to endless cycles of time, the action of each act framed beautifully by sombre string-quartet-like music and an ambiguously striking half-sentinel, half-spectre presence of a moon.

I’ve already commented on Estragon’s and Vladimir’s engagingly familiar kind of “down-under vagabond” garb, Sheila Horton’s costumes for the pair for me hitting the spot, with Vladimir, as befitted his more philosophical and pro-active speech, somewhat more organised appearance-wise than his more bedraggled companion. Pozzo and Lucky couldn’t have been more of a contrast, the former most nattily attired, formality enlivened with colourfully psychedelic shoes, and the latter part-punk, part-gothic in his garb and coiffure – each, nevertheless, lost in their respectively-stated worlds of self-expression, and even in their visual assurance as helpless as were the two vagabonds in their “live-and-sleep-rough” garb. A hat-play sequence between the characters allowed Beckett scope for certain vaudeville goings-on, as well as symbolising certain aspects of each individual’s identity (in the first productions everybody wore bowler hats – a standard vaudeville prop, incidentally, though nowadays, as here, directors tend to opt for discernably different headgear). Lucky’s hat was important to him for thinking, Pozzo’s for social status, and Vladimir’s as a source of knowledge – only Estragon seemed “liberated” from whatever talismanic potential possessed by his headgear, putting his trust instead in his boots.

Unfortunately I never saw director Ross Jolly’s previous (and legendary) production of “Godot” in Wellington twenty years before. Without directly knowing what his earlier approach was, I’m wondering whether he’d decided to more consistently “lighten” the interactions, ambience and textures of the whole this time round – for the simple reason that I was expecting something more deeply disturbing, more extreme at each of the spectrum’s ends, the humour more manic, the desperation blacker and more cutting. It would be in line with a “distillation of response” over that time involving a more insoucient touch, a freer use of humour – though all of this is pure conjecture on my part. However it all was, nothing here was superfluous or wasted or lacking in motivation or conviction in the results achieved by his direction and the audience’s outward responses to them.

In fact his actors seemed here to relish the freedoms of light and space and warmth at the work’s beginning, with both Jeff Kingsford-Brown as Estragon and Andrew Foster as Vladimir readily filling the opening spaces with their respective preoccupations, Kingsford-Brown at intervals  beautifully conveying almost child-like sequencings of curiosity, puzzlement, irritation, delight and impishness, however quickly each impulse returned him to his default-setting of anxiety and “wanting to be off”. His introductory struggles with the removal of his shoes had a Blake-like “world in a grain of sand” preoccupation which put him akin to an animal struggling to survive in, let alone make sense of a world of nightly beatings and daily vigils of hopelessness.

More of a thinker and a free-wheeling philosopher, Andrew Foster’s Vladimir readily and more pro-actively fleshed out his curiosities and irritations with an engaging charm and bright-eyed quickness of manner, though as the play unfolded we realised that his somewhat more energised and quixotic impulses and responses to things were actually more style than substance. More superficially rational and empathetic than Estragon, he repeatedly reminded his companion, even amid their most trenchant tribulations of whom they were supposed to be waiting for.

Peter Hambleton’s well-dressed, arrogant, self-regarding Pozzo ably pushed all of our buttons in the expected manner upon his arrival with the rope-bound Lucky, whom he treated as his slave with the utmost contempt and degradation, while addressing Estragon and Vladimir with hardly less disdain, the episode presumably a kind of “comfort stop” for Pozzo on his journey to wherever. As Lucky, Jack Buchanan’s physical control of his back-breaking position of utter servitude was no less remarkable than his sudden outburst of both manic dancing and clearly-enunciated nonsensical diatribe whose completion compelled his audience to spontaneous clapping – that it was more entertaining circus-act than piteous lunatic raving was due as much to Beckett’s alienatory settings as to the production’s more absurd than tragic leaning.

When Pozzo and Lucky returned in the Second Act, their roles were somewhat reversed, Lucky leading his now-blind master back across the vistas, the cortege collapsing in a heap midway to the piteous cries of the once-dominant and overbearing Pozzo, Estragon taking his opportunity amid the melee to kick Lucky in revenge for his first-Act injury. The play ended as the first half ended, with the boy arriving carrying the message that Godot will not come today but tomorrow for sure, and Vladimir and Estragon agreeing that they will go, but instead stay.

By the play’s end the hopelessness of the situation of Estragon and Vladimir was complete – amid the chaos they remained trapped, steadfast to the idea that their only choice was to wait for “Godot”. In this way, the production consistently expressed the dictum (not Beckett’s) “a tragedy to the heart and a comedy to the intellect”, and in the best existential tradition, left the question of “the best course” unanswered. A question for humanity at large, perhaps, waiting for us to “wake up to ourselves?”.

Circa Theatre’s “Under Milk Wood” a vital and rumbustious celebration of “LLareggub”

Circa Theatre presents:
A play for voices by Dylan Thomas

Featuring: Kathleen Burns, Jeff Kingsford-Brown, Simon Leary,
Carmel McGlone, Gavin Rutherford

and the voices of Jeffrey Thomas and John Bach

Directed by Ross Jolly
Music composed by Gareth Farr
Audio-Visual design by Joanna Sanders
Costume design – Sheila Horton
Lighting Design – Marcus McShane
Set design – Andrew Foster

Circa One, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday, 13th October, 2018

People who grew up with the sounds of the voices of either Dylan Thomas himself, or of Welsh actor Richard Burton, as the “First Voice” on any of the two recordings of Thomas’s verse-play “Under Milk Wood” that were available in New Zealand from the 1950s, were given the work pretty much as its author would have expected it to be performed – as a play for voices, to be read and “acted” with voices alone, the parts distributed in live stage performances among five readers (though the Burton recording used instead over twenty individual voices with only a few duplicated actor-roles, every one a distinctively “Welsh” voice).

A later, 1988 recording, featuring this time Anthony Hopkins as the principal narrator, also used a near- entirely Welsh cast, mostly one-voice-to-a-part, the producers taking the opportunity to employ several “star” entertainers  in certain roles to add prestige to the venture – though this had the unfortunate effect of bringing into play commercialised singing-styles and accompaniments completely at odds with the play’s rural village setting and its homespun characters, tempting one into labelling the production (complete with its soupy symphony orchestra-played sequences) as “Over-Milked Wood”.

I hadn’t previously seen (or heard) any “live” performance of the play, read or staged, before encountering this production, and so it took me a while to get into its “swing”, though my initial reaction was delight at both the imaginatively-conceived video backdrop settings in tandem with the use of Gareth Farr’s sensitively-contrived music, light-years from the all-purpose sugary sounds that for me helped to disfigure the Hopkins recording! But I was dismayed by the use of recorded voices for the two principal narrators,  neither of whose voice was captured with any great “personality” –  whether this was the fault of the recording process (which seemed to lack any real immediacy – ought not at least the “First Voice” have a quality of dream-like music sounding inside one’s head?) or the somewhat unvaried tones of the readers, I’m not sure.

Whatever the case, things “came alive” with actor Jeff Kingsford-Brown’s evocation of the blind sea-captain, Captain Cat, the production wisely leaving the recorded voices behind for significant periods and giving much of the accompanying narrations to the actors themselves, sometimes speaking their own introductions, sometimes working in tandem with others. Kingsford-Brown’s calling up from the dead of his dream-ghosts gave us a wonderful “Samuel Beckett” moment, the figures rising from the depths of the subconscious (i.e. behind a screen), an effect which conveyed the other-worldly quality of the writing most hauntingly.

To go meticulously through the whole play, sequence by sequence, would be to suffocate some of its wonderment and spontaneity – even now when listening I find certain sequences “come upon me” as if by surprise, either in wraith-like fashion or with rude, cut-to-the-chase vigour. On the Circa stage the five actors maintained a tireless fluidity of movement and characterisation, in a sense “reinterpreting” the playwright’s original conception as something heard which then stimulated the imagination. Here, much more than sounding the words was done for the listener/observer, the actors literally embodying their roles, characterising at least as much with gesture, movement and costume.

I feel impelled to get this off my chest early, so as to concentrate on what the production and its actors DID do. Presenting the play with actors in costume moving about a stage gave people like myself a vastly different experience to that by which we first encountered the work. I thought it a true “swings-and-roundabouts” scenario, with the “stage movement” approach externalising the characterisations, giving them a vivid, readily accessible quality, the drawback being for me that the playwright’s words lost a lot of their power and beauty.

With speakers using the words to convey every inflection, emphasis, variation and colour of Thomas’s richly-endowed language, one was literally swamped with sensation of a kind that engaged the listener’s imagination, and worked in tandem with it to recreate time, and incident. Here, by contrast, were actors, by dint of being able to convey so much with their physical presence, far less meticulous and more cavalier with the words’ potential for evocation. The “Welsh” flavour of the voices, too, was a hit-and-miss affair, being at times something of an amalgam of British rural accents,  for me somewhat blurring the dimension of the scenario’s at once lyrical and earthy exoticism.

That said, under director Ross Jolly’s fluid guidance, the “dramatis personae” of the town of Llareggub wholeheartedly launched themselves into our imagined village-world with gusto and elan. Following Captain Cat’s evocations we found Kathleen Burns and Gavid Rutherford as Myfanwy Price and her lover, Mog Edwards dreaming of one another. Rutherford’s focused blandishments were a delight, such as “I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster”, and Burns played to her lover’s obsession with money with “a wallet of forget-me-not blue, for the money, to be comfy”. The couple’s final meeting at the play’s other end was also heart-rendingly brought off with a beautifully-staged misalliance of bodies as Mog turned to hug his money instead of his disappointed but always-hopeful Mfanwy.

Rutherford also gave us a superb Mr Waldo, the voice savouring the words spoken to his disapproving late wife – “Hush, love, hush – I’m widower Waldo, now”, and the subject of  gossip which I thought less effective delivered by a couple, than, in Thomas’s original, a pair of gossips – the reproving “Using language” was but one example of somewhat bland characterisation, which should have reminded us all of our old-fashioned maiden aunts, but didn’t quite, here. But later, the naughtiest, most suggestive song of the evening had to be Waldo’s reminiscing “Come and sweep my chimbley”, sung by Rutherford with engaging “nudge-wink glee” in the Sailor’s Arms with an actively participating audience!

Kathleen Burns also winningly played the susceptible Polly Garter, loving anybody back who will give her the babies she adores, but reminding us constantly of her one true love, “little Willie Wee who is six feet deep”. While singing Polly’s music, Burns’ voice did drift perilously close to an Andrew Lloyd Webber-like singing delivery at times, a manner at odds, I thought, with a rural Welsh village ambience – but she remained on the side of the Llareggyb angels when not forcing her tones and allowing us to properly “eavesdrop” on her singing.

Her versatility produced a winsome Milly Smalls beautifully at odds with herself when looking in the mirror – “Oh, there’s a face! – Where’d you get that hair from? – Got it from an old tom cat!”, a querulous and volatile  Mrs. Cherry Owen, an ingenuous Mrs Dai Bread One, especially so in the lovely “crystal ball” scene with her “menage a trois” partner, Mrs Dai Bread Two (McGlone), and a “martyr(ed) to music” Mrs Organ Morgan, dealing with her “head in the clouds” organ -playing husband (Simon Leary) who turns a deaf ear to her gossip, while thinking of Bach and Palestrina!

Leary’s most riotous undertaking was that of the insouciant Willy-Nilly Postman, who opened everybody’s mail (with the help beforehand of the scheming, steaming Mrs Willy-Nilly), telling Mr Mog Edwards that Miss Mfanwy Price loves him with all her heart, and Mr Waldo that he’s getting another paternity summons, and afterwards spreading the gossip accordingly. By contrast, the same actor’s shifty, shameless Nogood Boyo appeared and disappeared as mysteriously as the Cheshire Cat, even taking us out rowing in the bay with him at one point, and then treating us to a sublimely delivered, profoundly ultimate existentialist statement of being.

As Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, asleep with two dead husbands at her side, Carmel McGlone gave the character a sweetness which masked her character’s determination that occasionally bubbled to the surface – her “Tell me your tasks, in order” was steeled ever so subtly by reminders such as “And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes!” From such a benign dictatorship with her two deceased subjects Gavin Rutherford and Jeff Kingsford-Brown, both in thrall to her and her directions, McGlone moved easily to the controlled viciousness of Mrs Pugh, whose husband, Mr Pugh, played by Kingsford-Brown enacted a Doctor Crippen-like double game of surface imperturbability and secret murderous passion – it wasn’t his fault that he found himself telling us he was taking the breakfast UP to his wife while walking DOWN the onstage stairs! – the onus was on we in the audience at that point, to reimagine the world!

Kingsford-Brown’s most moving “Captain Cat” moment, of course was his realisation that the memory of his “one great love”, Rosie Probert, was receding into the dark, Rosie (Carmel McGlone) herself telling the old man “what he already knows” – a superb piece of tragic writing from Thomas. While I still prefer the plainer, starker spoken version of the exchange between man and ghost, the “semi-sung” treatment of “What seas did you see” given here was beautifully “choreographed” by both Kingsford-Brown and McGlone, causing “water to come in me eye”, at the end of it all.

There were as many such vignettes I haven’t commented on, merely wanting to convey with the above descriptions something of the presentation’s flavour. Johanna Sanders’ Audio-visual designs and Gareth Farr’s music I’ve already described on as evocative and appropriate, while Sheila Horton’s costumes struck me as entirely apposite to the characters’ situations. Andrew Foster’s set gave the character’s movements plenty of helpful levels to work at, as well as wry concealments as required, while the different atmospheres were beautifully evoked by Marcus McShane’s lighting.

So – a beautiful, and in places funny, quirky and moving, realisation by Ross Jolly with the help of his team, a venture well worthy of attention.
(Circa One, until November 10th)


A girdle round about the earth – Katherine Mansfield as a “wild colonial girl” at Circa Theatre

A play by Lorae Parry

Directed by Susan Wilson
Music by Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Design by Lisa Maule
Lighting by Marcus McShane
Costumes by Sheila Horton
Audio-visual Design by Haami Hawkins and Lisa Maule
Soundscapes by Oliver Buckley

CAST:  Katherine Mansfield – Isobel MacKinnon
Virginia Woolf – Jessica Robinson
Ida Baker/Leslie Moore aka LM – Jessica Robinson

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Tuesday 21st August – (until 15th September)

Writer Lorae Parry’s dramatized exploration of Katherine Mansfield’s brief but stellar trajectory throughout different worlds on each side of the globe is a miracle of recreation. It takes a particular kind of genius to flesh out convincingly and organically the bones and sinews of someone else’s work, a process for which Parry obviously has the gift of instinct allied to the electric charge of empathy. Mansfield’s own words are filled with the energy and impulsiveness which characterised her formative years, as the “wild colonial girl” cuts an outwardly gauche but essentially compelling figure in London’s literary circles, by turns attracting, appalling and fascinating some of the leading figures in those circles, most notably a fellow-writer, Virginia Woolf. In a ninety-minute tour de force of theatre, Parry puts a girdle round about the earth along which her subject runs, dances, leaps and spins, the result being a warts-and-all self-portrayal of thoroughly engaging spirit, determination and courage, a real person with something for everybody, if disconcertingly volatile and at times tangental in her actions and responses.

Beginning with voice-quotes which appear in tandem with photographs of people who knew Mansfield and whose sounds both echo and resonate, or sparkle with kaleidoscopic immediacy,  we’re instantly plunged into a sea of different impressions of Mansfield, each adding a kind of onion-layer to the body of the personality, and as consistent or contradictory as each had a right to be. My favourite at the time was Frieda Lawrence’s remark, talking about KM’s  “terrible gift of nearness, she can come so close….”, and adding “If she tells lies, she also knows more about the truth than other people….”. It’s a kind of pre-sequence to Mansfield’s own “Who am I” moment, one which she plays with as thistledown on the wind.

At first it seems as if she is a child composed almost of whimsy – “in my life so much love in imagination- in reality, eighteen barren years” she rhapsodises partly to us, partly in thrall to the thought of Edith Bendall (E.K.B.) a woman with whom she had a passionate relationship when young, describing their intimacy to us in the most heartfelt terms before, with a sudden volte-face,  remarking on their “maudlin affair”….people such as Oscar Wilde and Arnold Trowell (a young New Zealander with whom she was involved) slip into and through her thoughts, along with the memory of a schoolmate, Maata Mahupuku, whom she had been intimate with – “I want her as I have had her” – which excites her passions (“savagely crude and powerfully enamoured”) as much as awakens the present absurdity of it all – “Heigh-ho! – my mind is like a Russian novel”. All of this is superbly crafted, weighted and teased out by Parry as words, and in turn by Isobel MacKinnon as Katherine, her quick-draw reflexes portraying a three-dimensional being in the grip of formative emotions and impulses, open-ended and empathetic, so that we can’t help but love her despite some of her more abrasive volatilities.

Aiding and abetting MacKinnon’s compelling characterisation is an equally virtuosic Jessica Robinson bringing to life diametically opposed forces and foils in Mansfield’s life in the personas of both KM’s long-term London friend Ida Baker (otherwise known as Lesley or LM) and her redoubtable literary contemporary-cum-rival Virginia Woolf. Robinson is both separate and oddly empathetic between her two alter egos, with in places a hint of suggestiveness of a commonality between each woman’s response to her “wild colonial girl” – in Ida she invests the character with both constancy and servility towards Katherine, everything suggesting the vulnerability of someone who’s seeking to live through somebody else, and placing herself entirely at the service of someone she loves as a kind of fulfilment, despite KM’s demonstrative ambivalence towards her.

Her portrayal of Virginia Woolf could almost rate a review in itself, so convincingly does she bring the character to life, aided, of course by Lorae Parry’s judiciously-chosen words throughout. There’s a whole gamut of response packed into relatively brief sequences, conveying something of Blake’s “world in a grain of sand” kind of feeling, Woolf’s initial patronising tones (worn like a mask), comparing KM’s apparent commonness to “a civet cat that has taken to street-walking”, while acknowledging her undoubted intelligence and interest. Robinson gives her a compulsive “moth to the flame” aspect regarding KM, as she relishes both her “unpleasant but forcible and utterly unscrupulous character” and “her love of writing”. Later, amid a farrago of convoluted reaction, comes Woolf’s admission that “there’s no-one else I can talk to about writing”, and after KM’s death, the cri de coeur  – “there was no longer any point in writing, Katherine won’t read it.” – altogether a fascinating and absorbing portrayal of somebody who at one stage compares life to “a little strip of pavement over an abyss”.

Where Parry’s play scores equally brilliantly is in relating Mansfield’s work to her life, something also commented on by Woolf in places, as much in jealousy as in outward disgust regarding the story “Bliss” in particular – “I threw down “Bliss” with the exclamation “She’s done for!”, and later, “….is it absurd to read all this criticism of her into a story?…..” Earlier, KM relates an excerpt from “In a German Pension”, following with the thought, “I’ve acted out my sins, and then excused them with “it doesn’t do to think about these things….it was experience”, and then delineates the influence of her brother Lesley (killed in the war) on her story “Prelude”, with a charmingly macabre sequence involving the idea of standing on one’s head and breaking one’s neck! – throughout these “art is life, etc.” sequences we were captivated, as throughout, but especially so here, by MacKinnon’s lightness and surety of touch, far more than a more self-consciously “felt” approach would have done. In places it was almost a theatrical master-class given by actor, director and playwright in the art of when to hold and when to let go…..

Into the play’s ninety minutes there was poured, set and crafted so much more that can’t be covered here – enough for the moment to say that Susan Wilson’s direction seemed “hand-in-glove” with the writer’s intentions throughout, Sheila Horton’s costumes seemed to have a “rightness” that helped bring to life each different sequence and change or development of character, and Lisa Maule’s set inestimably helped ‘rivet” our sensibilities to particular times and places. The whole was given an ambient glow by Marcus McShane’s sensitive lighting, occasionally galvanised by the vivid presence of the AV images (Maule with Haami Hawkins), to which the oddly nostalgic effect of Michael Nicholas Williams’ slow-motion realisations of Debussy’s music and the atmospheric sound-effects by Oliver Buckley gave an appropriate dream-like quality.

In sum, I thought Parry’s play and its production here easefully and unselfconsciously “placed” Mansfield on a mainstream literary stage, with nothing either overly dismissive or narrowly parochial about her conception – the character comes across as, in her own words, “a conscious, direct human being”, for us to accept as we find her. All up, a pretty stunning achievement.








Switzerland – Circa Theatre’s absorbing “life and art” thriller

Circa Theatre presents:

SWITZERLAND by Joanna Murray-Smith

Catherine Downes  –  Patricia Highsmith
Simon Leary            –   Edward Ridgeway

Susan Wilson – director
Tony De Goldi – set designer
Marcus McShane – lighting
Sheila Horton – costumes
Gareth Farr – music

Circa Two,
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St, Wellington

Tuesday, 20th March, 2018

Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith remembers her mother reading American author Patricia Highsmith’s novels “voraciously”, and with an intensity of concentration that left a deep impression upon her. She was to find herself in turn similarly “drawn in” by Highsmith’s writing, in particular by what she termed her “utterly fearless curiosity about the darkness of the human psyche”. Subsequently, in her play “Switzerland”, where Murray-Smith depicts the author, in self-imposed exile, seemingly on the verge of creating a new novel featuring her most successful fictional character, Tom Ripley, there’s a remarkable sense of a subconscious rebirth of Highsmith’s legendary gamut of irreconcilable antagonisms in the writing, which the present production relishes in a no-holds-barred fashion.

Though amply recognised in Europe as a writer, and enjoying fame with Alfred Hitchcock’s screen adaptation of her first major novel, “Strangers on a Train”, Highsmith considered she had been shunned by the “dead, white American male” literary elite  – we hear some of the novelist’s candid opinions of the worth of some of these well-known figures expressed in no uncertain terms during the play – and her withdrawal to Switzerland represented both defiance and disillusionment as regards her homeland (she was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1921). Besides the Hitchcock film, she became well-known for her “Ripley” novels, creating one of literature’s most fascinating characters, the “charming psychopath” Tom Ripley.

Highsmith’s downright Swiftian attitudes towards humanity received plenty of colourful fleshing-out in Murray-Smith’s work – actor Catherine Downes’ feisty, acid-humoured portrayal flung her character’s manifold prejudices and bigotries in all directions most convincingly, amid lashings of vitriolic splendour, one-liners which blazed like short-lived fireworks across our vistas – “Happiness? Happy people simply don’t ask enough questions!” We were treated to a piecemeal, but essentially confessional resume of Highsmith’s traumatic childhood – “Childhood! – one big repository of terror!”- as well as being acquainted in no uncertain terms with various updated preoccupations, her fondness for guns and knives, her penchant for “show tunes” and her New Year resolutions, such as “Drink more!”

What’s most tellingly and even creepily revealed, however, is the novelist’s inward, but gradually-burgeoning fascination and empathy with one of her own characters, that of Tom Ripley. Murray-Smith brings this idea into bold physical relief by introducing the fictional figure of Edward Ridgeway at the play’s outset, a young man sent by Highsmith’s New York publishers to help persuade the writer to produce another “Tom Ripley” novel, something that would, as the young man tremulously puts it to her, bring back into focus her greatest achievement, the revitalisation of her most memorable character. Despite her initial refusal and caustic and demeaning manner towards the messenger, he persists, in the process gradually shedding his awkwardness; and so it is that he brings into play a two-handed game of “cat and mouse” between them, one whose outcome we might guess at but about which we can never be absolutely sure.

Simon Leary’s finely-gradated portrayal of the mysterious stranger from the publishing firm is the perfect foil at the outset for Downes’ free-wheeling, determinedly disagreeable Highsmith. His persistence, at first seemingly naïve, and insufficiently robust, doesn’t take long to develop a kind of “edge” of its own, so that we become less and less certain of where his character is actually coming from or, in fact, going towards. As he breaks down her resistance to the idea of a new “Ripley” he gathers surety and displays occasional bravado – while Highsmith see-saws the process at her end, promising to sign a new contract if he will come up with a scenario for her concerning the fate of a rich old lady in the new story.

Each of the play’s three run-together scenes bolsters the young man’s strength and confidence, and in parallel appears to weaken or dissipate the writer’s defences – the pair’s interaction takes on a Pinter-esque quality as she talks about a childhood memory of a man she once saw and has been “chasing” ever since, and he subsequently answers her telephone in her temporary absence, to (shockingly) “Mr Edward Ridgeway of New York”. By this time we’re uncertain of just which character’s dream we’ve been taken into – it’s almost as though Murray-Smith might be thinking of the “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, here, with Highsmith similarly transported at the thought of a mystical Isolde-like union with her dream-lover, the “man she has been chasing”. Anyway, to go further than this would spoil the story’s ending and the frisson of the unexpected that Murray-Smith so tantalisingly creates.

Susan Wilson’s direction of this at once larger-than-life and intensely “interior”psychological tale beautifully oversees the playwright’s colourful ebb-and-flow of the characters’ intentions and interactions, orchestrating the acerbity of Highsmith into a creative symphonic flow of interaction with her increasingly provocative and catalytic antagonist. Her actors are terrific, both Downes and Leary seemingly attuned to that same idea of alternating give-and-take with random spikings, and playing into one another’s hands accordingly.

Tony De Goldi’s set initially puts us disconcertingly at ease, apart from the wall display of weaponry, which Marcus McShane’s lighting brings in and out of prominence as required. And Sheila Horton’s dressing of the young man over three scenes deftly underpins his growing assertiveness and dominance within the relationship, while firmly anchoring Highsmith’s general appearance in the garb of a long-time solitary and cranky bohemian, outwardly expressing a contempt for convention.

Adding a distinctive flavour to the theatrical ambience of the sort that I always thought Jack Body’s music used to do for the local tv series “Close to Home” was Gareth Farr’s beautiful and evocative music – the opening 5/4 marimba pulsings were nicely equivocal, as a contrast to  the creepily menacing bass tread underpinning eerily modulating chords accompanying the first scene transition, And equally disquieting was the deep throbbing of percussion and piano accompanying the lead-up sequence to Highsmith signing the contract, the 5/4 marimba music returning to temporarily pour water on troubled oils! The final scene I thought had some exquisitely beautiful scoring, Farr’s music perfectly complementing the scene’s visionary-like ambiences, and by contrast making the reappearance at the very end of the strains of “Happy Talk” from “South Pacific” at once valedictory and joyous, almost Mahlerian in its bathos.

This production is the New Zealand premiere of the work, one that runs until the 14th of April. It seems to me a must-see for so many reasons – as well as being suspenseful entertainment, it’s a mover and shaker of a piece, and a purposeful boundaries-pusher, one that poses questions about both art and fantasy and their interaction with and relevance to everyday life.

Circa Two until April 14th 2018



Ordinary heroism – four women bare their lives in Circa Theatre’s new Caryl Churchill play “Escaped Alone”

Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone Circa Theatre 2017





Carmel McGlone, Irene Wood, Ginette McDonald, Jane Waddell

Escaped Alone
by Caryl Churchill
A play in One Act

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music by Gareth Farr
Set by John Hodgkins
Lighting by Marcus McShane

Ginette McDonald – Mrs Jarrett
Carmel McGlone – Vi
Jane Waddell – Lena
Irene Wood – Sally

NZ Premiere, Circa Theatre, Wellington, Saturday 11th March 2017

– this performance Tuesday 14th March

Back in days of yore, I remember taking part in a one-act play written by Irishman Brian Friel, called “Lovers, Winners”, a scenario involving two actors and two narrators. The former were the eponymous “Lovers”, who enacted a single day’s events, their interchanges filled with hopes and plans for their future, while the two narrators (I was one) took turns to counterpoint the stage action with a matter-of-fact commentary informing the audience of the tragedy that was to shortly befall the happy pair.

At the time I thought it extraordinary how so undynamic and indeed almost absurdly pre-emptive a theatrical scheme could generate such emotional heft. It was the cool, pitiless rending of the fabric of the lovers’ dreams and expectations in direct parallel with their expressions of hope and future delight which gave the piece its clout, the wrenching away of one’s ongoing identification with something beautiful and touching in the light of cold, cruel facts. How more theatrical a situation was that? – having to arbitrate in situ between emotion and intellect, warm action and cold narrative, and processes cheek-by jowl with outcomes?

Something akin to those parallel processes which so captivated me about Friel’s work all those years ago hung potently over a different theatrical scenario, Caryl Churchill’s latest work “Escaped Alone”, which received its NZ premiere in Wellington on Saturday (11th March), and which I saw on Tuesday evening at Circa Theatre. From a disjointed sequence of backyard exchanges between a group of women, three friends and a passing neighbour built up sinewy strands which gradually grew from beneath the myriad of topics brushed onto the dialogue’s canvas like so many wisps of paint. We weren’t allowed to let any detail slip, however trivial or elliptical, as something which seemed incidental at first would occasionally be opened up like a door or a window, becoming a view of or portal towards something hitherto concealed, something which threatened to fill the vistas with a private fear or near apocalyptic horror.

For the four women the talk centred on trivialities and circled around unspoken things, as if all were like friendly, domesticated jackals probing unseen carcasses, very occasionally showing teeth, but mostly keeping on the move. From this spin of interaction, the first to break cover was Sally (played by Irene Wood) who suddenly freeze-framed at the thought of cats, airing her fears in mounting waves of compounded horror. After this came Jane Waddell’s Lena, who bravely and resolutely chanced her all, broke out of her shell and fronted up to her own depressive state of fearfully-burgeoning inactivity – and finally there was Carmel McGlone’s Vi, squarely eyeballing her friends’ not altogether supportive raising-up of a ghost bearing the trauma of a violent domestic incident between her and her husband resulting in his death at her hand. Thus exposed, these individual strands multi-tasked as trip-wires, gallows-nooses, anchor-chains, life-lines and jungle vines, as each woman wrestled with or swung from each in turn, dealing with their private struggles and displaying fear, resolve and strength as required.

Seemingly not quite “in the swim” of things at first, but making an effort to get to the pitch of the exchanges was Mrs Jarrett, the passing neighbour, part-invitee to the gathering and part-spontaneous gate-crasher (laconically played by Ginette McDonald). But then, without any warning or invitation she silenced the talk by standing up and stepping across and into a kind of gloom-induced vortex of oracular space lit by mysterious patternings. In matter-of-fact “voice of history” tones she began to recount descriptions of the most catastrophic upheavals and dystopian societal behaviours surpassing all previous instances known of “human inhumanity’ in their horror and cold-blooded uncaring cruelty.

These utterances became increasingly bizarre over each of several episodes, as worst-case scenarios joined forces with absurdities, relished all the more by McDonald’s “and that’s not the worst of it….” delivery. Eventually even Mrs Jarrett herself was momentarily transfixed from within, but by nothing that seemed to cohere, except what was suggested by the words “terrible rage” repeated by the character in a frightening crescendo. What prompted this could have been anything – and in the light of the apocalyptic atrocities she’d described as the oracle, her incoherence as her “normal” self was, somehow, even more disturbing than were the phobic and/or traumatic scenarios outlined by her companions.

By this time my initial, fetched-up memories of the parallel time-frames of my long-ago Irish play were well-and-truly overlaid by the complexities of Churchill’s view of the human condition, individuals besieged by foes without and within, and consciousness visited by “ghosts of Christmasses to come” bearing unpalatable tidings of civilisation’s impending dissolution. But as Brian Friel designated his doomed lovers as “Winners” in that aforementioned one-act play’s title, so here in “Escaped Alone” do the four women each emerge, albeit painfully and experience-ravaged, as “winners” by their own lights. They’re all obviously survivors, and their achievement even has a group anthem, here a slickly-harmonised rendition of the 1960s pop-song “Da Do Ron, Ron”, which completely dominated a whole swinging, foot-tapping sequence of the play! Elsewhere, Gareth Farr’s cool, anecdotal music fitted the production’s ambiences hand-in-glove, as notable for the silences it framed as for its own aural wallpaper voice aiding and abetting the mood of lives some of whose sequences seemed like rhythms measured out by coffee-spoons.

Both the playwright and the people involved with this production of “Escaped Alone” nailed fast my sensibilities, adroitly handling the balance of what seemed “real” alongside what seemed “imagined”, and presenting the contrasts between the two as symptomatic of the puzzle proposed in Pontius Pilate’s famous question to Jesus Christ – “What is truth?” And though Caryl Churchill wrote this play before the triumph of Trumpery and the burgeoning worldwide crystallisation of the concept of “fake news”, the character of Mrs Jarrett in her “oracular mode” seemed equally as potent as a receptacle for the promulgation of untruths served up as titillating sensation by way of rendering news as “entertainment” – certainly Ginette McDonald’s character while in these pronouncement modes seemed to drift into a space on the stage without proper substance, as if she had become an image on a computer or tv monitor.

Susan Wilson’s production in Circa Two’s intimate spaces was as confrontational as it needed to be within an “ordinary/fabulous relationship” of outward everyday functionality and concealed terror/agony/grief. Each character’s individual mind-spaces of trauma could have been further intensified by technical means (lighting, sound effects), especially Mrs Jarrett’s mind-boggling prophetic/absurdist sequences – except that this may have fatally estranged those relativities of order and chaos – they needed to be held in touch rather than become ends in themselves; and the direction and the acting performances adroitly kept those unities, those multi-faceted strands, connected.

We warmed to each of the personalities and took heart at their grit and determination to go on with their outwardly routine and inwardly desperate lives – like Voltaire’s Candide, making sense of life by simply making the garden grow – and the play’s final scene, an almost pantheistic appreciation of a beautiful late-afternoon seemed a kind of heart-warming apotheosis of ordinary existence, one to put alongside the “Da Do Ron Ron” anthem in its “We know what it’s like for you as well” message. Be it as a Cassandra-like prophetess, a Candide-like homespun philosopher, or a Tin Pan Alley girl-group balladeer, Caryl Churchill’s voice speaks volumes in “Escaped Alone”, the play’s moments per minute delivered tellingly and sure-footedly by Circa’s all-star cast and director.

Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone” plays at Circa Theatre, Wellington until the 8th of April.

From nothing, whole worlds – Circa Theatre’s 40th Birthday production of King Lear

Circa Theatre presents:
William Shakespeare’s KING LEAR

Director: Michael Hurst
Set and Lighting: Andrew Foster
Costumes: Gillie Coxill
Music and Sound: Jason Smith
Producer: Carolyn Henwood

King Lear – Ray Henwood
Earl of Gloucester – Ken Blackburn
Goneril – Carmel McGlone
Regan – Claire Waldron
Cordelia – Neenah Dekkers-Reihana
Fool – Gavin Rutherford
Duke of Kent – Stephen Papps
Edmund – Guy Langford
Edgar – Andrew Paterson
Duke of Albany – Todd Rippon
Duke of Cornwall – Peter Hambleton
Oswald – Nick Dunbar

With: Alex Halstead, Callum McSorley, Charlotte Cook, Connor McNabb, Hailey Ibold,
Jamie Wallace-Thexton, Jordan Murphy, Kelly Willis-Pine, Monica Reid, Morgan Hopkins,
Olivia Fox and Samantha Geraghty

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 14th May, 2016

Shakespeare got his “King Lear” story from an early chronicler, Holinshed, (who had in turn got it from an earlier source). As well as this there had been an anonymous stage adaptation of the story “doing the rounds” and performed in London about ten years before Shakespeare’s play appeared. Both of these told the story of the semi-legendary Leir of Britain and his three daughters Gonorilla/Gonerill, Regan/Ragan and Cordeilla/Cordella. In both Holinshed’s version and the anonymous play, there is a happy ending, with the aged king reinstated on the British throne by his daughter Cordelia’s arrival with her husband the King of France’s troops to defeat the armies of the traitorous dukes of Albany and Cornwall.

Shakespeare’s dramatisation, with its bleaker denouement to the story held the stage until the Puritans closed down all the theatres in 1642. With the Restoration theatres were reopened, but a new generation of playgoers found the uncompromising tragedy of the Bard’s Lear too much to stomach – this  encouraged the Poet Laureate of the age Nahum Tate to rewrite the play along the ”happy ending” lines of the earlier versions. It wasn’t until over a century later that the great actor Edmund Kean reinstated Shakespeare’s tragic end to the drama – and even then the battle for fidelity’s sake continued to be fought well into the first half of the twentieth century over heavily cut scripts, and reducing or taking out supporting roles by various managers, directors or actors themselves, wanting to emphasize the role of the eponymous leading character.

Today, people responsible for productions pride themselves upon up-to-the-minute historical research and textual fidelity, even if there’s an equally compulsive desire on the part of directors to update the context of the play’s action, ostensibly for purposes of better connecting with modern audiences. It seems that British comedian Michael Flanders’ throwaway line during the course of his and Donald Swann’s revue “At the Drop of a Hat” concerning a dissertation on Tudor England theatrical performance – “Anything to stop it being done straight!” has become true of most present-day performances of theatrical and operatic classics.

Stage traditionalists must feel as though they get a hard time of it these days, but they can take heart from the pleasure and satisfaction to be had when encountering updated productions whose creators and organizers know what they’re about. So it was on Saturday night at Circa Theatre with director Michael Hurst’s production of Lear, which seemed to me to be securely grounded in its own “time”, the ambience suggesting the Second World War era, and the context one of military conflict. Once the frisson of encountering the update’s impact at the play’s very beginning – a shadowy, almost “film noir” scenario featuring people furtively smoking and soldiers with guns checking the environs in a “put that light out” kind of way – had been squared up to, and the King and his court been introduced to us in their gloriously-arrayed mixture of 1940s military and civilian clothes, we settled down to listening “past” our visual realignments and into the heart of the business, contained of course in the language and its interchanges.

Lear’s court resembled a smartly-run consortium’s board-room, one involving both military and civilian personnel. And there, in the commanding personage of Ray Henwood was the king himself, autocratic and imperious, walking with a stick, and wielding it with complete authority. His daughters and their respective entourages awaited the King’s pleasure, Goneril and Regan, the two eldest, seeming to anticipate the demand that they declare absolute and unequivocal love to their father. The elder sisters spoke in reply first, Carmel McGlone’s Goneril honeyed of voice, beautifully modulated and completely without spontaneity, and Claire Waldron’s Regan fulsomely sing-song but mechanical, and sounding increasingly like clockwork as she proceeded – both declaring their actual feelings and intentions as clearly to all excepting their father as if they had spoken their thoughts out loud.

A marked contrast came with Lear’s questioning of his youngest daughter, Cordelia, portrayed with youthful wholeheartedness by Neenah Dekkers-Reihana, her sincerity palpable and vulnerable in manner, but steady and unswerving in effect, engendering shock among allies and antagonists alike – the King’s anger was perfectly in context with his disappointment at Cordelia’s “Nothing” answer and his “Nothing will come of nothing” warning reply. The reaction to all of this of Lear’s uniformed right-hand man, the Duke of Kent (played by Stephen Papps) I found a bit puffy and blustery of manner at first, but once his defence of Cordelia in front of Lear had earned him his banishment, and occasioned his return in disguise to continue serving his master, I thought the actor’s portrayal as a loyal retainer deeply moving, rich in truth and honesty.

Articulating his “stand up for bastards” speech while having his way on an office desktop with some acquiescent “temp” girl, was something of a virtuosic theatrical feat on the part of Guy Langford, playing the role of Edmund, illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, a loyal friend of Lear’s. Very much the young rake on the make, Edmund racily and almost engagingly outlined for us his scheme to undermine his half-brother’s legitimacy in his father’s eyes, and wheedle his way into favour with either (or both) Goneril and Regan. He made the most of his “heavenly portents” speech before convincing his brother Edgar that the latter had incurred their father’s displeasure, and that he (Edgar) had better go and hide out until further notice. I liked how Edgar (played by Andrew Paterson) convincingly presented a more rough-hewn, less “courtier’d” manner than his half-brother, credible in his despair at his father’s anger, and his bewilderment regarding what he might do to right the alleged wrong.

Edgar’s course, to take refuge in the countryside as a beggar, brought him into direct contact with the estranged Lear and his Fool (the latter a virtuoso portrayal by Gavin Rutherford of one of literature’s most powerful archetypes, the wise jester – more of him below….) at the height of a storm. In some of the most visceral language ever accorded the elements by any storyteller or poet, the words became stinging, biting, oak-cleaving cataracts and hurricanes. All of this was superbly and variedly detailed by Henwood, his character’s troubled place in the cosmos transfixed at that moment by a squared volume of rain-spattered light mid-stage, drawing our focus into the square and similarly flailing our own sensibilities – a most telling piece of interpretation and production. Having been then directed by the solicitous Kent to a hovel, Lear encountered Edgar, disguised as “Poor Tom”. Andrew Paterson’s portrayal forcibly put across the character’s deranged quality with heightened volume and dramatic gesture. Though much of his diatribe couldn’t be deciphered, his piteous sotto-voce asides kept the character’s purpose clear for us amid all the bluster.

So to Gavin Rutherford’s Fool, something of a “Billy-Bunter in an airman’s cap” Fool, but obviously a force to be reckoned with, a presence off whom Lear’s own words bounced and faltered, as when the king responded to the banter about making something from nothing with a hollow-sounding and throat-catching “Nothing can be made out of…….” And how tellingly was the Fool’s “old before thy time” jibe underscored with just enough music of derangement as to indicate Lear’s unnerving by his own fears, with “Keep me in temper! – I would not be mad!” Throughout, the characterizations of each of the actors made me more aware than ever of how both the Fool and Kent tried to protect and safeguard their lord and master, Kent from his enemies without and the Fool from Lear’s own foibles within.

As for Ken Blackburn’s playing of Gloucester, the portrayal graciously and naturally conveyed the character’s one-dimensional amiability right at the outset, along with a comprehensive lack of insight into either of his sons’ true mettle. This obtuseness led to his downfall at the hands of ruthless ambition – and only in the wake of his savage blinding by both Regan and her husband Cornwall in revenge for his continued support of the king, did the first glimmerings of truth begin to shine for him from within. The blood-drenched beginning of this process brought us into direct contact with Peter Hambleton’s single-minded depiction of Cornwall’s ugly thrust towards power, and, even more disturbingly, Regan’s naked blood-lust, Claire Waldron here most viscerally and repellently conveying her delight at Gloucester’s disfigurement. Less overtly but as slyly evil was Nick Dunbar’s beautifully-crafted Oswald, ostensibly a tool of his mistress Goneril’s machinations, his impulses at her beck and call, his manner as pragmatic as any soldier of fortune.

Small wonder, then, that Gloucester’s subsequent wanderings with his son Edgar (disguised as a beggar and becoming his father’s unidentified protector) evoked such pity and even (after his abortive suicide attempt) an almost sacramental transfiguration into a martyr-like figure, one who had paid a price for his understanding of things and for his short-lived reunitement with the child who truly loved him. His coming-together with the crazed Lear on the heath was a moment of sweetness amid the carnage, a briefly applied balm of shared understanding, here, with the flower-bedecked Lear embracing the blinded and blood-drenched figure of Gloucester, their theatrical duet beautifully voiced by both Henwood and Blackburn, a moment for the ages.

With the other treacherous sister, Goneril, and her husband Albany (Todd Rippon subtly and effectively  signalling his ambivalence as a conspirator in the scheme of things, perhaps, like his father-in-law, a man more sinned against, etc….), their dissolution seemed partly wrought by the former’s long-standing marital dissatisfaction. How cruelly and unequivocally Shakespeare characterized this with Goneril’s brief Act 4 tryst with the free-wheeling Edmund, complete with suggestive body-language and hints of impending mutual delight. As for Carmel McGlone’s transported, almost orgasmic delivery of “O, the difference of man and man!”, it ironically brought the house down, the more effectively so for its sudden, highly-modulated expression! By contrast, I thought Todd Rippon nicely judged Albany’s awakening of his own strength of character, both in the face of his wife’s intention to cuckold and usurp him as a husband through Edmund, and in his rediscovery of a sense of loyalty to his king, leading to those words of his bitterly-wrought understanding at the play’s end – “…speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”’.

Director Michael Hurst’s acute observation in his programme note that Lear “goes too far”, beyond what words can say or do, was conveyed in a myriad ways by this production, by its sheer noise, by its stricken silences, by its insensible furies, by its sardonic humour, by its grim desperations and its blazing illuminations  and by its unspeakable brutalities set against displays of equally unspeakable love. On stage were both experienced actors playing in a sense their own ripened experiences, cheek-by-jowl with various youthful players fronting up to snippets of ideas and concepts which had the potential to change, modify, augment, enrich their own as yet youthful existences – Lear’s doomed yet enduring gesture of union with his daughter Cordelia – “we two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage” spoke for this outlandish theatrical amalgam of old and young as beautifully and deeply as any other quality one might think of.  For Circa and for the people involved in this production it all seemed to this audience member as beautiful and as deep as one might have a right to receive.

Circa Theatre Revisits Home-Grown Chronicles

Circa Theatre presents
“Joyful and Triumphant” by Robert Lord

Director: Susan Wilson
Designer: John Hodgkins
Lighting: Marcus McShane

Cast: Jane Waddell (Lyla)
Catherine Downes (Alice)
Michele Amas (Rose)
Peter Hambleton ((George)
Katherine McRae (Brenda)
Gavin Rutherford (Ted)
Lyndee-Jane Rutherford (Raewyn)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

playing until May 7th 2016

Something very special is being currently re-enacted at Circa Theatre in Wellington – a revival of Robert Lord’s play, Joyful and Triumphant.

First performed at Circa Theatre in 1992, in the company’s original premises in Harris Street, the play, directed by Susan Wilson, was one of the great successes of the fourth Wellington Arts Festival, winning both festival and national awards. The production then undertook a New Zealand tour and subsequently was presented in Australia and in London.

Now, almost twenty-five years later, a new production features the same director, and no fewer than three members of that original 1992 cast, each one playing a different role to that created the first time round.

Joyful and Triumphant presents a series of Christmas Day vignettes in the life of a “typical” New Zealand family over a period of forty years, beginning in 1949.

Playwright Robert Lord managed to chronicle both family history and the wider social, cultural and political history of New Zealand over the duration. Something I didn’t pick up at the time of first hearing about the play was its apposite subtitle – “An Incidental Epic”. I also didn’t know, until coming to write this review that the playwright didn’t live to see his work premiered, but died just before the production was staged – he was 46.

There was absolutely nothing glamorous, flashy, epic or earth-shattering about this play, and that was its strength – it sought to present an ordinary New Zealand family’s Christmas as it would have been in 1949 and how things developed for those same people over the years. As a new-born forty-niner myself, my memories of the opening ambiences were understandably dim, but I readily connected with all of the subsequent depictions, the characters and their attitudes, and their surroundings, as if I were a kind of Ebenezer Scrooge taken back by a “ghost of Christmases past”.

One of the actors in the original production, Catherine Downes, commented on her feelings as a present-day cast member, this time round: “Approaching it this time, a huge difference is that the entire play is set well in the past. When we first did it in 1992, it brought us up to date. Now, it’s almost a time capsule at what was going on. Not just in New Zealand politics, but social history, and what views were at that time, towards racism, religion, women’s roles.  It’s utterly fascinating, and even more so now, looking at it from a great distance.”

The dialogue kept on for me evoking memories of the television series of the 1970s Close to Home – here was the vernacular, expressed in a recognizably authentic way, characterful and wry-humoured, but free from any self-conscious cleverness. Interestingly, Downes commented that the dialogue and situations appeared to “travel” without any difficulty – when the original cast took the play to Australia and to England people who attended the performances seemed to her to enjoy the work as readily as did home-grown audiences.

In almost every instance, the actors seemed to fit their characters as hands fit well-worn gloves.  Undoubtedly director Susan Wilson’s experience both in a specific work-based sense and in general enabled her to bring out this “playing oneself” aspect in each of the characters in a richly-rounded way. Only in one case did I have difficulty recognizing and thus warming to a character in a kind of “familiar” sense, a circumstance which could well reflect my own internal struggles with like people in day-to-day situations! – but more of this anon.

The song “Blue Smoke” set the scene most evocatively for the first and earliest of the vignettes, the strains permeating the ambiences and resounding among the configurations of the times – a wonderful beginning, underpinned by subtle dialogues between characters which allow them to tell us who they are as people putting their best foot forward for Christmas, and in more unguarded moments expressing their insecurities and disappointments. Katherine McRae’s Brenda, who was the family’s daughter-in-law, for most of the time unprepossessing and embarrassingly anxious to please, undertook a “moment” in which she deliciously described her daughter Raewyn as “thirteen and too far advanced! – I did have a chest like that until I was twenty…she just grew the thing to annoy me!”

The characters developed both by osmosis and stimulation, bringing their personalities and resulting styles to the interactions – until the arrival of the youngest family member Raewyn in the second Act, the two most startling and lively figures were, on the face of things diametric opposites – George, the head of the Bishop family, and the well-to-do neighbour, Alice, a widow, who goes to church with Lyla, George’s wife. Politics spiced this particular interaction, George’s socialist beliefs occasionally locking horns in a (mostly) good-natured way with Alice’s true-blue inclinations.

Peter Hambleton’s George was a vividly-projected larger-than-life character, very much down-to-earth, apart from his romantic inclinations in kissing his wife Lyla under the mistletoe (after an accidental-cum-engineered piece of flesh-pressing with the wrong woman!), as well as his indulgence in flights of fancy, such as pretending, most convincingly, to be Bing Crosby during the course of the latter’s singing of “White Christmas”. More than a match for him throughout was Catherine Downes’ feisty, true-hearted Alice, the widowed neighbour whose circumstances over-rode any divisive political ideologies which might have kept her at a distance – her and George’s interactions when practicing their dancing steps provided a source of ever-so-slightly risque merriment for all those in attendance, especially the idea of their capturing the “Blue Ribbon for General Rhythmic Excellence” as a dance-floor team.

Opening the play was Michele Amas’s Rose, a sensitive, low-keyed but deeply-wrought portrayal of a young woman trying to generate an independent life in the wake of losing her wartime fiancee, and struggling to do so, with utterances along the way such as “I don’t know where I left my life, but it’s not here!”, and the occasional family skirmish, such as with her brother Ted (Gavin Rutherford) over the state of each other’s respective lives. Originally, Amas played Raewyn, the rebel teenaged daughter – “It was a big part of our lives for eight years, off and on. So it was like returning to a family you hadn’t seen for a long time, the family picture was there, but slightly different. Being back with the others is pure joy. We never thought we’d have the opportunity to do this again.”

Rose was originally played by Jane Waddell, who took the role of “Mum” (Lyla) this time round, her coiffure resplendent at an early point in the play via a possibly neighbour-inspired blue rinse, which would have made husband George see redder than usual! Lyla’s subsequent debilitating stroke caused as much bathos as pathos through her attempts to communicate with the family with barely intelligible squawks (the true nature of laughter disturbingly exposed, perhaps). But previously, Waddell and Catherine Downes together made something rich and strange out of their characters’ “chalk-and-cheese” neighbourly interaction – like many things in “Joyful and Triumphant”, best relished, I’ve found, in retrospect, things having continued to work and grow long after one has left the theatre.

Playwright Lord tapped into the “blood is thicker than water – but at a price” principle with his characterizations of both Ted and Brenda, son and daughter-in-law. Gavin Rutherford’s portrayal of Ted, in places so yummily gauche and self-inflated, if ready to burst like a bubble when put to the sword, excited our derision and sympathy at one and the same time. This was especially so in the context of Ted’s interaction with his father, George, the pair’s disagreement regarding the events of  the 1981 Springbok tour fuel for deeper-seated conflicts and existential angsts, especially to do with Raewyn, Ted’s and Brenda’s daughter.

Which brings me to confess my one difficulty regarding “recognizing” each of the play’s characters – this was with Lyndee-Jane Rutherford’s assumption of Raewyn, and perhaps was as it should have been, in any case, with a rebellious teenager! At first I found the portrayal alien and seeming over-wrought, as if deriving from an American television soap, and thus seeming to me not to “connect” (even in a dysfunctional way) with the parents, the wider family and the times – however, as the saga amassed the years and brought about a kind of “epiphany” for the family over the birth of a grandchild, Rutherford’s character seemed to put down roots and grow more recognizable (comfortable?) foliage. Perhaps I also grew in some ways along with her character, with each of the interactions – as one has to, willingly or otherwise, in real life!

Rich, redolent and recognizable – this was a production greater than the sum of its parts, one which Susan Wilson’s direction, John Hodgkins’ evocative sets and Marcus McShane’s oh so nostalgic lighting helped bestride the ages, giving us all a glimpse of whom, what and where we had come from, and why it all was so very worthwhile to remember.

A Child’s Christmas a world and time away at Circa Theatre

Reminiscences of childhood by Dylan Thomas

Narrated and performed by Ray Henwood
Dramaturg: Ross Jolly

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Tuesday 1st December 2015

I thought I knew Dylan Thomas’s enchanting youthful evocation “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” pretty well, in the wake of numerous encounters with the work over the years. As each Christmas approached I would read the work to the class of children that were in my charge as a teacher,  a kind of ritual that extended over more years than I care to remember. And every now and then (invariably when my classes consisted of older children) I would bring out my precious copy of a Caedmon LP containing the voice of the great man himself reading the story (as well as five poems) in that unforgettable, peculiarly ritualistic sing-song voice of the kind attributed to bards of ancient times.

So, as I’d neither read nor listened to the story for some time, I anticipated with the greatest of pleasure the prospect of hearing one of Wellington’s most illustrious theatrical figures, Ray Henwood, present the work at Circa Theatre. While I assumed that it would be a one-man show, I was intrigued as to what Henwood would actually do, as I remembered the reading I did in my classes taking around twenty minutes in all – which seemed short measure for a complete Circa production.

Dylan Thomas’s own recording of this story was made in February 1952 in New York while the poet was on the second of his three “recital tours” of the USA. The LP format could accommodate far more recorded space that “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” could fill up, so Thomas recorded five of his best-known poems to include on the record as well. I wondered whether Ray Henwood was going to do a similar thing, “filling out” the evening by reciting for us some of these iconic verses, such as “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night”, and “Fern Hill”.

In the event what Henwood did was even more wonderful – having been brought up in Wales in the same places as Thomas himself, though a handful of years afterwards, he spent the entire first half of the show “setting the scene” for his audience from the persecutive of his own experiences as a boy in Swansea, bringing the poet’s world vividly to life. His account was a kind of amalgam of personal reminiscence interspersed with fragments of Thomas’s own earlier writings, some of which managed to find their way into the finished story this time round.

Thomas himself regarded Swansea ambivalently, writing to a publisher about his early poems growing out of “the smug darkness of a provincial town”, and describing his cultural environment as “depressing and disheartening” – interestingly his childhood reminiscences, which appeared in various incarnations, are almost entirely free from any such depression, boredom or frustration, filled as they are with wonderment and magical reinterpretation of a child’s world. Completely non-literal, and delightfully, and in places theatrically imbued with a sense of the fabulous amidst the ordinary, the writing envelops the reader with a vivid sense of time and place in the classic storytelling manner – an example in the finished version is the way in which Thomas’s sequence “whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or…..” so delightfully evokes and disarms at one and the same time, leaving the listener/reader subsequently ready for anything.

Previous versions of the poet’s childhood Christmas memories included a 1942 radio talk “Reminiscences of Childhood” which was further developed into another talk “Memories of Christmas” for the BBC’s “Children’s Hour” – legend has it that Thomas came not to be trusted broadcasting “live” by this time, and so his talk on this occasion was pre-recorded. The story then appeared in the photojournal “Picture Post” in 1947, and then in the American “Harper’s Bazaar” in the early 1950s, during one of Thomas’s American tours. During this first-half setting of the scene Ray Henwood quoted freely from these different versions, conveying not only a sense of the poet’s reworkings of his material, but of the kind of ambience that fostered both the style as much as the content of the things we were being presented with.

So we were primed up, good and proper, for the presentation of the finished story after the interval, the stage settings (the parlour at Thomas’s family home in Swansea, on Cwmdonkin Drive) similar to that throughout the first half, helping to give the whole a kind of organic flow-on effect. How beautifully and securely the story’s opening (“One Christmas was so much like another….”) placed the happenings in that country called the past, where “they do things differently”, fancy given licence to enlarge, intensify, heighten, in the pursuit of essential truths. To my fallible ears there seemed numerous additions to the story I remembered, references near the beginning to “tobogganing on the teatray” and to “boys who have three helpings”, each of which added a jewel to the sparkling whole.

Other references which I thought enlarged the range and scope of our pleasure at both detail and overall ambience included a mention of Christmas stockings just before the inventory of Christmas presents began (we enjoyed once again the familiar “mistake that nobody could explain, a little hatchet”, and the delightful reference to “the little crocheted nose-bag from an aunt now, alas, no longer whinnying with us”). Another, more poignant incident recounted that was new to me was the boy’s finding of “a dead bird – a Robin, perhaps – with all but one of its fires out….”

Henwood judiciously varied his delivery throughout, not only as regards pacing or alternating sequences and characterization of different voices, but in presenting the storyteller in different guises, sometimes as a kindly grandfather reading directly from a book’s pages, and sometimes as a character from the story come to life before our eyes, with a tangible presence to boot. Again this was keeping both the homespun and the magical on speaking terms, each to the other’s advantage, as well as to ours as the enthralled audience.

Aiding and abetting the unfoldings was a judicious use of sound effects, on the one hand firemen’s bells and associated noises, and then similarly sensitive lighting variations accompanying the carol-singing episode at the story’s other end – in general these technical things were sparingly used, allowing us to focus unerringly upon Henwood’s richly-wrought voice and the poet’s own word-painting to full effect, which were, after all the two things that mattered most about the venture.

What gave me the biggest surprise, I think was something which changed the whole concluding ambience of the story – the decision to finish the presentation with lines from one of Thomas’s most well-known poems, “Fern Hill”, the verses added without a break in the narrative flow. As concluded by Thomas, the “Child’s Christmas” account has the boy getting into bed, saying “some words to the close and holy darkness”, and then falling asleep, thereby preserving inviolate the memory of the day for all time. With those few lines from “Fern Hill” included, however, a shadow is cast retrospectively over the whole work, the events of the day made open-ended and subject to the ravages of time, the poem being a meditation on the transitory nature of life, and in particular, childhood.

Though time is initially presented by the poem as a benign force it holds sway in an all-pervading way, a feeling the “Child’s Christmas” story on its own manages to avoid by encapsulating time within the framework of a single day. It’s ironic that, on my copy of the aforementioned Caedmon LP containing the story read by the author, there’s space afterwards on the same side for one of the additional poems that were recorded in the same session – no prizes for guessing which poem it was!

So, a solid personal triumph for Ray Henwood and a success in terms of dramatic focus and literary quality for Circa. If you didn’t get the chance to enjoy the show and admire the actor’s skills, the theatre’s 2016 programme has scheduled for May a new production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Henwood in the title role – one would imagine that, even if one saw nothing else at the theatre, such an event would come into the category of “unmissable”.