Circa’s “The Little Mermaid” pantomime awash with enjoyment and conjecture

THE LITTLE MERMAID – The Pantomime 2021
Circa Theatre, Taranaki St., Wellington

Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford
Directed by Susan Wilson
Music arranged and directed by Michael Nicholas Williams
Choreography by Natasha McAllister and Jthan Morgan
Set and Projection design by Anna Lineham Robinson
Lighting Design by Marcus McShane
Costume Design by Sheila Horton

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St.,Wellington
Wednesday, 17th November, 2021

Until 23rd December, 2021

My first thought upon hearing about the projected scenario for this year’s Circa Pantomime was surprise that a story with grim and murderous elements (Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid”) had been chosen – not having seen or even registered the Disney film adaptation of the story I wasn’t aware that the inevitable process of sanitisation of this story had already begun, as had previously happened to countless other folk- and fantasy-tales adapted for children over the years.

With the prospect of a remake by Disney of the story due for release in 2023 it would seem that “The Little Mermaid” has joined the select “classic fantasy tale” group, duly reinforced, of course, by pantomimic treatment, as witness Circa’s energetic and highly recreative adaptation of the story.

My second thought, independent of the above, was stimulated at the theatre itself upon my reading director Susan Wilson’s paean of praise (thoroughly well-deserved, incidentally) in the programme for all the people, past and present, who have contributed their talents and energies to the Circa Pantomimes for the previous 17 seasons, more-than-usually laudatory – was this some kind of valedictory address on the director’s part? Time will, of course, tell, but even the most successful theatrical undertakings, by dint of their nature, don’t last forever and needs must undergo refurbishment of some kind.

I was thinking particularly of Gavin Rutherford’s superb series of “Dames” which we’ve enjoyed over the years, and which delivered yet again this time round with just as much bristling energy and droll insouciance as his character needed, his “Shelly Bay” persona a brilliant throwback in itself to a time when the world was younger and less “submerged” with troubles, Rutherford’s capacities for drollery here seemingly inexhaustible!

Of course, this was, both onstage and off, an ensemble effort – and Rutherford’s charismatic “Shelly Bay” was more than amply matched by the tale’s “movers and shakers”, both institutional and everyday – Simon Leary’s King Lando, the ex-restauranter-cum-ruler of the largely-submerged 3021 version of Wellington, one whose on-the-spot land speculations have secured him power and influence over what is now left of the eastern “Heights”, posed a credible romantic attraction for the “poor fisher woman” Shelly Bay, when allied to a past association the pair had that Lando was now doing his best to escape from! He had as well, a kind of “alter ego”, a puppet stingray called “Death Shadow, one that flitted voraciously in-and-out between the hapless characters that crossed his path.

King Lando’s rival on all counts came in the form of Kathleen Burns’ wonderfully-vampish Bermuda, the Sea-Witch, a stunning portrayal enhanced by an octopus-tentacled costume whose every movement riveted the attention! Bermuda’s more-than-apparent nastiness was mitigated by her disdain for humankind and the havoc wrought upon the natural world by its representatives, her theatrical vow to “rid the world of humans” a kind of perverse “corrective” to Lando’s self-serving power-grab.

Equally spectacular in a more benign context was Jthan Morgan’s Queen Neptuna, a tragic, subaqueous “Queen of the Night” kind of figure (and similarly bewailing the loss of a daughter), looking and sounding the part as if to the manner born! It was a tour-de-force performance by Morgan, as he had to switch roles occasionally to being King Lando’s Public Relations agent “Shaggy” (and put up with the inevitable barrage of innuendo!)  – Morgan’s extra distinction was his “Shaggy” character’s adeptness with sign language, which certainly resonated with everybody, in the wake of the last couple of years’ Covid updates!

The younger generation was represented by Natasha McAllister  in the title role, as Queen Neptuna’s daughter Coral, charming us from the outset with her singing voice, which of course she has to later relinquish so her fins and tail can be changed into legs after she falls in love with a human – who happens to be a boy called Lyall, who happens to be the son of Shelly, thus further extending the show’s vistas when looking back at a world lost to the rapacious exigencies of climate change.

Lyall was here played by Jake McKay, who to his credit seemed remarkably “boy-next-door-like” considering his mother Shelly had at various times told him he was “special”, being an “immaculate conception”. Apart from each having similarly patronymic-like names, McAlister and McKay seemed ideally suited for their roles – a happy stage partnership! Finally, there was Trae te Wiki’s portrayal of Crabby, the hermit crab who’s Coral’s best friend, and who’s the “ordinary, everyday” personality, the “Everyman” of the drama, who comes across as warm-hearted and faithful, and very much the victim of circumstances -most endearingly she adapts as best she can to life’s changing situations, winning our sympathies in the process.

My third thought (or is it my fourth?), having introduced and summarised the individual personas and characteristics of the show’s dramatis personae, is a reiteration of  my amazement and appreciation of the sheer raw energy this cast puts into the performance (a quality also remarked on by my companion for the occasion, herself a “performance artist”, and as such directly appreciative of the levels of high-octane output generated by all concerned – whether emoting, singing or dancing (or all three at once), the output was almost tangible in its crackling voltage.

This quality was never more never more apparent than during the production’s songs (the actors supported to the hilt by their inexhaustible Music Director Michael Nicholas Williams via his arrangements and on-the-spot accompaniments), Natasha McAllister’s voice soaring  at the beginning, resonating in the memory during her “mute” period (displaying her new-found sign-language skills as the rest of the cast sang “You Can Count on Me”), and gloriously restored for the rousing finale. McAllister’s and Jthan Morgan’s  inspired choreography throughout gave the songs extra “punch”, Sheila Horton’s colourful and apposite costumes also contributing to the flow of body, texture and colour (as I write this I can still see Kathleen Burns’ Bermuda and her witchety tentacles!), and the whole was mellifluously (and sometimes startlingly) illuminated by Marchs McShane’s lighting, adding even further dimensions to Anna Lineham Robinson’s environmentally dystopian sets, evoking a futuristic world we’d probably rather not try to imagine…….

On the strength of what her “support team” of actors and technicians generated through their efforts, director Susan Wilson had every right and cause to thus “stop and reflect” for us on the achievement of this and past pantomime productions, and, of course, revel in the deserved satisfaction of knitting all these strands together to memorable effect.


Cinderella (Rogernella? Gingerfella?) the Pantomime, delightfully mixed-up fun at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
CINDERELLA – the Pantomime
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford

Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director: Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Design: John Hodgkins
Lighting Design: Marcus McShane
Costume Design: Sheila Horton
Musical Staging: Leigh Evans

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Rosie Bubble)
Natasha McAllister (Cinderella)
Jonathan Morgan (Bayley)
Kathleen Burns (Tommy)
Bronwyn Turei (Dandini)
Simon Leary (Buttons)
Jack Buchanan (Prince Ashley)

Circa Theatre, Taranaki St, Wellington

Until 20 December, 2020, then 2-16 January 2021

Two of the show’s actors, Simon Leary (Buttons the Rat) and Gavin Rutherford (Rosie Bubble, the Fairy Godmother) are the authors of this wonderfully irreverent “take” on the classic Cinderella story, complete with up-to-date parochial and international references, foot-tapping music (two songs I actually KNEW, despite my advanced years!) and entertainingly-staged ensemble dancing, some of the best I’ve seen at Circa Pantomimes. In fact I thought Leigh Evans’ actual staging of characters’ movements throughout these was among the most polished and slickly-contrived I’d encountered at a pantomime in recent times, there being various breathless sequences of more-or-less constant fluidity of character, incident and venue to enjoy.

Audiences vary, as any experienced performer will affirm; but I also can’t remember a Circa Pantomime at which an audience seemed to demonstrably enjoy the show more than this one did. We all seemed to be enclosed, fore and aft, in a kind of appreciative bubble of responsiveness with some very noisy company, everybody determined to make the most of every gag, clever one-liner, spectacular routine or irruption of surprise contrived for us by director Susan Wilson! And, of course, such a “chain reaction” fore and aft of the footlights added immeasurably to the show’s essential dynamic, leaving us both exhausted and replete at the end.

Pantomimes are occasions where, besides indulging in child-like enjoyment of innocent fun, one can give satisfying vent to one’s biases and prejudices of social and political kinds, thanks to the “types” embodied in the story-line or stage action – and especially when they’re connected, however tenuously or otherwise, to prominent public figures who are the representatives of things we love to love or love to hate! Gavin Rutherford’s portrayal of the Fairy Godmother “Rosie Bubble” bestrode all of these worlds, being in a theatrical sense an on-the-fence commentator, while also having an integral “part” in the proceedings – we loved his/her “fairy” aspect both for the wish-fulfilment magical powers and the LGBTQ association (underlined by Rosie’s sudden cry when surprised – “Don’t hurt me! – I’m a fairy! – You’ll be done for a hate crime!” at one point), as well as the inexhaustible stream of drollery, constantly mispronouncing Cinderella’s name throughout (with “Salmonella” being just one of a stream of hilariously Malapropish misnomers!).

The “good” characters drew from both established lore (Natasha McAllister’s Cinderella, Bronwyn Turei’s Dandini, and Simon Leary’s Buttons the Rat, Cinderella named as such by Charles Perrault in the classic French retelling of the story, Dandini, the Prince’s valet, by Jacopo Feretti, the librettist of La Cenerentola, Rossini’s operatic version of “Cinderella”, and Buttons the Rat a manifestation of that common fairy-tale phenomenon, a creature changed against its will into something less salubrious) and from present-day role models of positive renown (Jack Buchanan’s Prince Ashley of the Blooming Fields, whose modestly-expressed ambition during the drama’s course is to have “a meaningful job in the Public Service”)! The “bad guys” were both cross-dressed (Jonathan Morgan’s outrageous “Bayley” and Kathleen Burns’s spivish “Tommy”), each stigmatised with blatant “Real Estate Agent” labels through Buttons the Rat confessing to hiding from them in the rubbish bin!  One of them (I forget which)  admitted to being an “ex-parking-warden”, and both of them expressed delusions of a grandeur which would be attained by plotting  a connubial connection between Bayley and the hapless Prince Ashley!

Just as a pandemic is presently wreaking havoc through many peopled parts of the world, so was here an unnamed dread seen to be occasionally visited upon the land and its inhabitants in the form of a lightning-and-thunder sequence which intermittedly cast fear and uncertainty into the characters’ minds most effectively. But “kindness”, a recently-projected spin-off panacea for national ills, made a welcome appearance in the mix, here, if in a different, more personalised way, with the Prince’s recognition of Cinderella as an individual person, despite his “face blindness” affliction. And at the delusional end of the spectrum was the immortal line spoken by one of the villains, Tommy and Bayley, while in disguise: – “Ere! Don’t you know who we THINK we are?” – something I made a mental note to use for my own purposes somewhere socially as soon as I could!

Though very much the “acted upon” throughout, both Natasha McAllister’s Cinderella and Jack Buchanan’s Prince Ashley were perfect exemplars of goodness and innocence throughout, with McAllister’s singing voice a fulcrum throughout for the success of Musical Director Michael Nicholas Williams’ sure-fire musical continuities that played such a part in forwarding the action. The ever-pleasing Bronwyn Turei as Dandini I thought magnetic as always with her voice and physical presence enlivening the ensembles, and though I wasn’t familiar with songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “I need a Hero”, my 1960s antennae were sent into paroxysms of retro-excitement by the company’s full-blooded renditions of “Five O’Clock World” and “I’m a Believer”!

The props were simple but spectacularly effective as witnessed the remarkable skeletal-but-still-stunning coach which took Cinderella to the ball! And I liked the simple but similarly stunning transformation effect of Cinderella’s costume-turned-ball-gown, replicated by Bayley as part of the dastardly plot to install the latter as the Prince’s bride. The children who were called up onto the stage at one point during the second act would have relished the excitement and wonderment of entering into such a phantasmagorical land – such a pleasure to register the looks and feelings writ-large on their faces at certain points!

It was what it was all about for all of us, at our varying individual stages of appreciation, and real enjoyment of others’ pleasure! The show plays at Circa Theatre until December 20th this year, and from the 2nd to the 16th of January, 2021.



Wonderland in Wellington at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Written by Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford (after Lewis Carroll)

Director: Susan Wilson
Musical Director/Arranger: Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Designer: Lucas Neal
Lighting: Marcus McShane
Costumes: Sheila Horton
Musical Staging: Leigh Evans
Technical: Deb McGuire (Lighting) / Paul Lawrence (sound)

Cast – Gavin Rutherford : Dame Marjori
Natasha McAllister: Alice
Sarah Lineham: White Rabbit/Caterpillar
Andrew Paterson: Tweedledum
Susie Berry: Tweedledee/Voice of Cheshire Cat
Jonathan Morgan: The Queen of Hearts
Simon Leary: The Mad Hatter
David Duchovny Dormouse: Himself

Circa Theatre, Wellington
Tuesday, 19th November, 2019

(until 22nd December, then 2-11 January 2020)

This show was, I thought, an absolute knockout on the performance strength of the songs and their associated choreography alone!  Michael Nicholas Williams’ skilled arrangements of no less than thirteen (mostly?) home-grown classics, along with Leigh Evans’ splendid choreography lent musical magic to a scenario whose script I thought suitably action-packed enough, if not with quite the consistent raciness and fluency of other Circa pantos I’ve seen. Still, a talented cast under Susan Wilson’s direction here imbued the song-and-movement action with the kind of energy and seamless flow of engagement we couldn’t help but give ourselves over to – music theatre at its most happily compelling.

For this reason I took away at the end most readily a sense of ensemble created in these pieces, around which everything else revolved – a “whole greater than the sum of parts” feeling, which added to the overall pleasurable “glow” of the experience. Of course, people of my generation, steeped in the Lewis Carroll books and their iconic references (a number of which were quoted verbatim in the dialogue) would be all too ready to succumb to the tried and true attractions and fascinations of the various characters and their antics – and thus it was, here. And even for younger people, the scenario of a “Wonderland” where the unexpected becomes the norm can be accorded parallels with our more-than-usually mixed-up world, so continuing to lend itself as much, if not even more, to the kind of absurdities that appealed to the original author’s fanciful imagination.

Writers Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford cleverly work local and topical references into the presentation via character’s names (here was Dame Marjori Banks Street, talking about ex-husband Kent Terrace, and the “other woman”, Courtenay Place!), and some hinted allusions to certain political leaders and their interaction in the characters of the Queen of Hearts and The Jabberwock! Film-maker Peter Jackson also gets a mention as the alleged uncle of Alice, Dame Marjori fancying her chances of making a valuable “contact” with someone whose connections might further her aspirations as a hitherto undiscovered performing artist (with a potently expressive right hand!).

The show’s scenario revolves around the circumstance in the original story of a famous theft – that of the tarts, made (as in the well-known nursery-rhyme) by the Queen of Hearts, though here, it’s the White Rabbit (rather than the Knave of Hearts) who’s placed under suspicion as the thief, and threatened with execution – naturally, Alice and Dame Marjorie, along with the Rabbit’s Wonderland friend, the Mad Hatter, strive to release the latter from the Queen’s clutches. Their adversaries include not only the Queen’s servants-cum-hit-men Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but the fearsome Jabberwock, whose presence is, until it finally makes an unexpected appearance, powerfully evoked at various stages of the story with a portentous leitmotif accompanied by a sudden darkening of the atmosphere – most effective!

It wouldn’t be a proper Pantomime without participation from the audience, most ostensibly the children who are summonsed onto the stage at one point by Dame Marjori to help thwart the  Queen of Hearts’ vengeful intentions towards the Rabbit. It’s done here with the power of love by the children holding up pictures of the Cheshire Cat’s smiling face and singing along with the Avalanche City song “Love, love, love”, which exercise comes off a treat (complete with mandatory-cum-heartwarming in-situ photograph-snapping!) There were also frequent exhortations  made to us to greet different characters, answer various questions or warn people of danger (to which we readily responded). As well, the Dame used her roving eye to suitable effect on the audience, at one point early in the piece lighting on a certain gentleman, asking him for his name, and then to our recurring amusement throughout the evening keeping him within coo-ee and on the boil!

In his tenth pantomime role, Gavin Rutherford again bestrode the Circa stage like a colossus, holding the audience in the palm of Dame Marjori’s hand as she described her “poor, lonely, widow-woman status”, though playing the “abandoned-wife” card this time round, courtesy of her absent husband Kent Terrace. Her flirtation and would-be liaison with Simon Leary’s wonderful, and hyperactively charismatic Mad Hatter promised much (with musically-framed “can this be he/she?” moments), before failing, at the cusp, to deliver, for reasons best seen rather than explained…..

Compelling, too, was Jonathan Morgan’s prima-donna-ish Queen of Hearts, as wilful and volatile as her divine right permitted her to be, responsive one second to the children’s exhortations of love, and then transforming into Gorgon-like aspect through the influence of the evil Jabberwock. Her song “Tears” in tandem with her cohorts Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Andrew Paterson and Susie Berry respectively) was, like their first-half “Out on the Street”, a highlight of the show, the three going spectacularly through their paces with fabulously-timed teamwork and superbly-concerted voices. And while Sarah Lineham’s character-parts of the White Rabbit and the Caterpillar were relatively low-key, the roles requiring more finely crafted than full-blooded, in-your-face assumptions, she came into her own in the song-and-dance routines as a paid-up-vibrant component of the ensemble.

As, of course, did the equally fine-tuned Alice of Natasha McAllister, whose role throughout was a kind of fulcrum, both as a foil for the outrageous Dame Marjori and a focus for everybody else, as their ostensible “dreamer”, an enabler whose presence was the sounding-board for practically all the other characters, her own beautifully presented in every way, a “constant” whose energy and vocal strength told in the concerted numbers which gave the show its special distinctiveness,

Backdropped by Lucas Neal’s simple but effective set of playing cards and a classic pantomimic “disappearing hole” part of whose charm and intent was its emphasis on “suggestion”, the non-stop action whirled kaleidoscopically around and about the performing-space to visceral effect, enriched by technicians Deb McGuire (lighting) and Paul Lawrence (sound) readily evoking the baleful presence of the Jabberwock. Sheila Horton’s costumings helped bring the characters to life, between dressing Alice classically (a la John Tenniel’s original illustrations) and the Mad Hatter fantastically, the latter complete with glove-puppet Dormouse. Director Susan Wilson enabled these disparate impulses and energies as a convincing and hugely entertaining whole, a show from which one felt like dancing into and through the streets afterwards, celebrating and prolonging its feast of music, movement, and laughter.





“Puss in Boots” Pantomime gives delight for young and old alike at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
Puss in Boots – the Pantomime, by Paul Jenden

Directed by Susan Wilson
Musical Director / Arranger – Michael Nicholas Williams
Set and AV design – Lisa Maule
Lighting – Marcus McShane
Costumes – Sheila Horton
Choreography – Leigh Evans

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Camilla Miller)
Simon Leary (King Justin/Citizen)
Natasha McAllister (Martha/Citizen)
Jeff Kingsford-Brown (Mr.Brown/Troll/Citizen)
Jonathan Morgan (Puss-in-Boots/Citizen)
Carrie Green (Ms Green /Troll/Citizen)
Ben Emerson (Arthur Miller/Citizen)

Circa Theatre
Taranaki St., Wellington

Sunday 18th November, 2018

A director’s note in the programme from Susan Wilson paid tribute to the late Paul Jenden 1955-2013), actor, dancer, director and author of this and several other pantomines performed by Circa over the years, describing his presence as “sadly missed”. One of his most successful pantomime adaptations was of the well-known story of “Puss-in-Boots”, based on the European fairy-tale known in Italy as Il gatto con gli stivali, and in France as Le Maître chat ou le Chat botté (“The Master Cat” or “The Cat with the Boots”). The story tells how a cat uses his wits to gain power and riches for his poor, lowly-born master. Jenden’s pantomime, first performed by Circa in 2012, was here revamped and updated to catch the current drift of events and personalities that make Wellington the ideal on-going setting for such fairy-tale goings-on!

With recent Circa pantomimes “Peter Pan” (2017) and “Jack in the Beanstalk” (2016) having set positively vertiginous levels of expectation, I was thrilled to here find myself just as freshly “caught up” in the time-honoured fairy-tale theatricality of larger-than-life characters palpably becoming flesh-and-blood for a few precious hours of make-believe. I did struggle a bit at the very outset, finding it difficult to take in all the words of the very first musical number, despite the best efforts of the otherwise superbly characterised trolls of Jeff Kingsford-Brown and Carrie Green, my ears obviously adjusting to the acoustic – what English comedian Michael Flanders once called “getting the pitch of the hall”. Still, the gist of the characters’ intent (evil and mayhem! – naturally enough!), came across strongly in the dance movement, depicting the pair bent on taking the “Well” out of Wellington by being the spanner in the works of all recent disruptions such as the chaos caused by changed buses, bus routes and timetables. The Wellington settings and references continued throughout the show, giving it all a truly home-grown flavour and striking regular chords of approval with the audience.

The appearance of the remarkable Gavin Rutherford as the show’s “Dame”, in this case Mother Camilla Miller, established an immediate rapport with a sympathetic audience, Camilla losing no time in articulating to us her plight as a poor, lonely widow woman in the Aro Valley, “ruined” by the activities of her late husband, whose feckless behaviour had squandered the family fortunes. She then introduced her son, Arthur Miller (played by Ben Emerson with plenty of boy-next-door goofy appeal), the name  immediately occasioning the remark by Camilla “Google it, kids!”, first of a goodly number of wry references, including the priceless remark “Can you see Arthur Miller getting married to a rich and glamorous woman?” Social positioning in a “desirable” suburb – “Hataitai? – or Naenae? – or even Karori?” gives the song “Movin’ on up” its chance, as  we catch a glimpse of the eponymous cat for the first time – though Jonathan Morgan’s character lacked an ounce or two of voice-projection when singing he made up for it in sheer puss-onality, his dance leading to the entrance of a bevy of cats for a number inspiring a near show-stopping fusillade of cat-calls!

Adroitly evading both Mother Miller’s Trade Me “Talking Cat” schemes and the “Gareth Morgan” bogeyman threats, the Puss inherited the late Mr.Miller’s boots (along with his “hippie gear”), and lo! – we were suddenly in business! The cat was magically empowered and empowering, galvanising Arthur’s sensibilities with the suggestion that he could, with the Puss’s help, become “The Marquis of Makara” and then cementing their partnership with a song “Stick with me kid”, one whose positive vibrations countered the reappearance of the Trolls and their avowed goal of the city’s ruination, little by little, troll by troll!

Where would a modern scenario of Wellington be without a leader? – enter King Justin (Simon Leary a wonderfully “fairy-story-obsessed” monarch), here heralded at first by his feisty, kick-boxing daughter, Marilyn/Moana/Martha, whom he wished “was more like the princess you are!” while easing the patience of “a poor, lonely widower man”, taking time out from his troublesome affairs of family and state with a lavish picnic.  Marilyn (played beautifully by Natasha McAllister as a tomboy with simple-life, anti-princess yearnings) encounters Arthur, who, of course, falls in love with her – but she will have none of the “wooing of a princess” rigmarole, introducing herself to him as “Moana”. All of this was to the chagrin of Puss, who tells Arthur in no uncertain terms that he “deserves a princess” and to that end has been setting up the well-known “duckpond” scene for his master to make the happy transition from commoner to aristocrat, courtesy of King Justin and his daughter.

The fast and furious action involving all of the characters heading for the duckpond, with the Trolls, Mr Green and Mr.Brown (Carrie Green and Jeff Kingsford-Brown in scintillating and energetic song-and-dance form), embodying delight in mischief and malice, Marilyn/Moana/Martha rejecting the hapless would-be Marquis, Camilla Miller and King Justin disconcerted by each other’s presence, and the Cat pronouncing the ensuing mayhem a “cat-astrophe”, closes the first Act with the kind of gusto that leaves a quivering mass of unresolved tensions awaiting the best possible outcomes, which of course are realised in suitably quirky and post-happily-ever-after ways by the time the Second Act runs its breathless course.

Buoyed along by the music, a mixture of old and new (one particularly heart-warming number I’d forgotten that I knew!), contemporary and generational, with absolutely delightful word-adaptations in places, the show is a tribute in itself to the skills of musical director Michael Nicholas Williams, who accompanied most of the songs and joined in the vocalisations on occasions. Cheek-by-jowl with these energies was the engaging choreography of Leigh Evans, brilliantly tailored to fit both songs and situations, and performed with real panache by the cast members.

Pantos need “add-water” audiences to work, and this one was no exception – I found it at least as entertaining and involving from my “relatively sedentary” point of view as the other Circa productions along the same lines I’ve seen, with Gavin Rutherford’s command of blandishment and persuasiveness as potent with grown-ups as it is charming with children – the “bringing-onto” the stage of younger audience members is always a highlight of the proceedings, particularly the ensuing “out of the eyes of babes” expressions on some of the faces, immersed as they are in such a wondrous and magical land of flesh-and-blood make-believe! The range of jokes and gags covered all ages and sensibilities, with nothing too obviously risqué though still sufficiently “naughty” for the outrage to be funny. I thought the costumes and set designs and props deliciously colourful and beautifully lit (two highlights being the “cups” sequence performed by the King and Martha/Moana/Marilyn as they sang “When I’m Gone”, and the entrance of the royal carriage, with wondrously inventive horses providing a visual feast of spectacle and movement.)

In short, I would lose no time finding a jolly soul-mate (ideally along with one child at the very least!) with whom to go to this presentation. Susan Wilson’s direction and collaboration with her “creative team” has produced both a winner and a worthy memorial to the talents of the show’s original creator, Paul Jenden.

At Circa Theatre to the 23rd December 2018, and then from the 2nd to the 12th of January 2019.


Peter Pan – stardust forever at Circa Theatre

Circa Theatre presents:
PETER PAN – the pantomime

Adapted from J.M.Barrie’s play “Peter Pan” (1904)
and novel “Peter and Wendy” (1911)
by Pinky Agnew and Lorae Parry

Cast: Gavin Rutherford (Katie Pie) / Cary Stackhouse (Peter Pan) / Camilla Besley (Wendy)
Simon Leary (Mr. Darling, Captain Hook)
Bronwyn Turei (Mrs.Darling, Xena Lily, Tinker Bell, Areffa Plankton)
Jeff Kingsford-Brown (Winston, Smee) / Ben Emerson (Dunnie)
Manuel Solomon (Nana, Hone)

Production: Director – Susan Wilson
Musical Director/Arranger – Michael Nicholas Williams
Set Designer – John Hodgkins
Lighting – Jennifer Lal
Costumes: Sheila Hoton
Musical staging- Leigh Evans

Circa Theatre (Circa One), Wellington
Saturday, 18th November, 2017

(until 23rd December, 2017)

Now here was fun heaped up in spadefuls onto classic, tried-and-true fantasy with a splendid pantomimic treatment of J.M.Barrie’s play “Peter Pan: the boy who wouldn’t grow up”, beloved of generations over a century of years. Writers Pinky Agnew and Lorae Parry, in their first-ever pantomime, managed to give us all the trappings of the art-form – music, slapstick comedy and topical jokes – while maintaining enough of those iconic links with the original story to cast a distinctive aura over the high-speed happenings of the fantastical plot.

Barrie’s 1904 play itself had high-pantomimic aspects involving audience participation, principally to do with the fairy character Tinker Bell, who, at one stage of the story drinks poison intended for Peter, and whose survival is “thrown over” to the audience’s children, when they are told that if they believe in fairies, Tinker Bell’s life will be saved. Here, the children were invited to the stage to add physical presence to their voices in their bid to “save Tinker Bell”, with heart-warming results, doubtless generating many a precious lasting memory within those ultra-receptive minds.

Being the “state of the nation” animals that they are, writers Agnew and Parry adroitly spiced the tale’s context with a handful of social and political observations, mostly delivered by the superb Gavin Rutherford as “Katie Pie”, the pantomime Dame with a distinctly Aro Valley Girl flavour, acquainting us with her hand-to-mouth existence in struggling to cope with her landlord’s putting up the rent, but crossing the haves/have-nots divide with aplomb as a harbour-ferry-travelling nanny to the children of a Days Bay household, the Darling family, on this particular evening Mr and Mrs being dinner guests of self-proclaimed right-wing radio and TV presenter Mike Hoskings.

Intriguing separate realities kicked in with the disclosure of the identity of Katie Pie’s landlord, none other than the rapacious, wheedling Captain Hook himself, his character at one point reinforced by way of some slightly miscalculated by-play involving an eponymous right-handed appendage – “Have we “hooked” up somewhere before?” – getting caught in Katie Pie’s dress in what I thought was a somewhat gratuitously-emphasised manoeuvre ….or was the snag accidental, and the near contortionist byplay a resourceful rescue operation? – we’ll never know!

Simon Leary bestrode the thinly-veiled “divide” between quasi-respectable, portfolio-clad predatory landlord, and out-and-out pirate, his Captain Hook extravagant of manner and resplendent of garb, displaying a veneer of heroic stylishness barely concealing impulses of cruelty criss-crossed with slash-strokes of memories of ticking clocks and crocodile’s jaws!

Another byplay was Jeff Kingsford-Brown’s “Winston Tweeters” cameo, the ferryman who here silenced the imagined vocal efforts of any number of Venetian gondoliers, with his spirited ditty “Hop in the waka / and give ’em a shocker”. From such appearances, Kingsford-Brown’s morphing into the piratical Smee, Hook’s right-hand (!) man, was an utter delight, particularly his brigandish rendition of Herman’s Hermits’ ‘”I’m into something good” as the chemistry between him and Katie Pie lit up in spectacular waves of bi-partisan emotion.

Perhaps the evening’s most varied high-octane output of on-stage energies came from the multi-talented Bronwyn Turei,  introduced firstly as Katie Pie’s daughter, the warrior princess Xena Lily, but reconstituting herself as Mrs Darling, the socialite mother of Wendy and baby Michael, before slaying youthful hearts in the aisles as the jealous and possessive, but fiercely loyal and courageous Tinker Bell , in deadly danger after swallowing poison to save Peter, her only true love. It remained for her to summons a kind of mermaid chorus line as backing for “Areefa Plankton” in yet a further oceanic surge of irrepressible song-and-dance energy.

Both Cary Stackhouse’s Peter Pan and Camilla Besley’s Wendy exuded youthful wholeheartedness, Stackhouse’s wide-eyed, open-faced “child of nature” aspect made a perfect foil for Camilla Besley’s equally fresh though more feet-on-the-ground Wendy, as determined in her own way as her more artless, unfettered companion. Each required a bit more vocal heft in places, but made up in physical directness what their work was wanting in sheer volume of voice – as both were newly graduated students each could reasonably expect further developments as their respective voices matured.

Completing the cast were the two Lost Boys, played by Ben Emerson and Manuel Solomon, the latter also contributing some energetic routines doggy-style as the Darling’s pet dog Nana. These were thinly-disguised representations of recently-ousted “lost” parliamentarians, here named “Dunnie” and “Hone” respectively, their singing and dancing bursting at the seams with stylish gusto – I can’t resist enjoying once again their “moment” of confession at bringing Wendy to earth with their arrows on her arrival in Neverland, with the plaintively-sung words,”Twang! Twang! – we shot her down!”

I must confess that, for me, part of the fun of shows like these is the clever reworking of new lyrics into familiar classic “hit” tunes – somehow it contributes to the “outrageous” aspect of the show, the above instance a rib-tickling example for me. Michael Nicholas Williams’ arrangements and on-stage realizations held us in thrall throughout, however popular or otherwise the material – in one instance near the beginning we were dizzyingly tangoed, murder-mysteried and balladed through the magic portals of Xanadu in what seemed like a series of rapidly-drawn breaths, along an exhilarating musical ride.

Everything made eye-catching use of colour (Hook’s costume in particular a visual treat) mobility (the stage readily doubled as either oceanic or harbour waters on which boats could pursue their course, and crocodiles could swiftly stalk their prey) and spectacle (a wonderful cosmic realization as Peter and Wendy fly through the starry divide and into Neverland – all credit to Sheila Horton’s costumes, Jennifer Lal’s lighting and John Hodgkins’ evocative and flexible sets. With Leigh Evans’ rapid-fire deployment of the actors’ choreographic energies, and Susan Wilson’s judicious hand on the show’s pacing and dynamic variations, we in the audience were literally kept on the boil throughout.

Cast and production team deserve every success with this show – no better gauge of entertainment effectiveness was provided by my next-seat fellow audience member (a prominent Wellington composer), whose laughter rang out more-or-less continually at the moments-per-minute parade of risible enjoyment to be had from this delightful “Peter Pan”.

See also reviews at Theatreview –

Circa rumbles and dances with Roger Hall’s Jack and the Beanstalk

Circa Theatre Presents:
Roger Hall’s JACK AND THE BEANSTALK – The Pantomime
Songs by Paul Jenden and Michael Nicholas Williams

Musical Direction by Michael Nicholas Williams
Directed by Susan Wilson

Cast: Hilda Hardup (Jack’s mother)/Aunty Pam – Gavin Rutherford
Jack – Barnaby Olson
Betsy the Cow/Goosey the Goose – Bronwyn Turei
Butcher Bob/Immigration Officer – Andrew Laing
Mrs Virus/Gertie Grabber – Emma Kinane
Claude Back/Postman – Jonathan Morgan
Smiley Virus – Jessica Old
The Giant – Himself
Freedom Campers – The Cast

Production: Ian Harman (set design), Jennifer Lal (lighting)
Sheila Horton (costumes), Leigh Evans (musical staging)

Circa Theatre, Wellington

Tuesday 22nd November, 2016
(running until December 20th)

Pantomime is surely one of the most life-enhancing experiences theatre can offer, and Circa Theatre’s current Jack and the Beanstalk production ticks all the boxes that matter in the genre – it wasn’t long after the show’s beginning before the harshest, most vocal critics in the audience were soon caught up in it all, making manifest their involvement in the tale’s twists and turns, to the added delight, I might say, of their rather less demonstrative, though still appreciative, older companions.

Though Roger Hall’s script had some occasional over-worn moments, it was enlivened by the unflagging energy and interactive spark of the characters, buoyed up by frequent topical references to circumstances in the “real world”, some of which of course made the stage goings-on seem eminently sane by comparison! Indigenous touches like the chorus’s opening song making references to early-morning tuis and moreporks gradually became politicised by Jack’s Mother, Hilda Hardup (Gavin Rutherford’s a superbly-sustained portrayal throughout) in her following song about the depressed state of village life – “miserable and sad”, mercilessly tagging the family’s location as “Lesterville, until recently Wade-Browntown”.

Sensibilities of all ages were further tickled by the uneasy thrill of occasional seismic “noises-off” emanating from different regions, and explanations related to the same, an audience favourite being “Gerry Brownlee suffering from a nasty bout of liquefaction” (I actually became fearful for the well-being of the person sitting next to me over THAT one!). And almost, but not quite, in the league of a “strip-o-gram” was NZ Post’s outlandish “go-go-dancer” delivery of a parcel to Mother, whose self-confessed response to social privation was to become an on-line shop-a-holic!

The age-old storytelling theme of poverty and the business of trying to make ends meet has, of course become more of a reality for a good many New Zealanders in recent times – the frequent appearances of “Claude Back” the repossession man (Jonathan Morgan a kind of surreal “trickster”, his aspect and stage movements beautifully Chaplin-esque), the nouveau-riche landlady Mrs Virus, (Emma Kinane, elegantly chirruping her personal wealth-creation agenda) and Butcher Bob, merely wanting his money for sausages (Andrew Laing, adroitly fusing touches of a “mad-butcher” manner with more pressing very real small-business concerns) entertained our sensibilities with their actions, while bringing home to us the plight of their “victims” such as Jack and his Mother, the people whom the capitalist system regards as “losers”.

Speaking of our eponymous hero, Jack embodied all the archetypal fairy-tale qualities of a young, self-effacing, lovable, if somewhat indolent and disorganised lad-about-town – someone upon whom fortune will surely and deservedly come to shine! Here, it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow, Barnaby Olson’s artlessly engaging portrayal winning our hearts on all the above fronts, and engaging our sympathies in his quest to secure the affections of his would-be sweetheart, the self-regarding Smiley Virus, with actress Jessica Old’s “bouncing bimbo” selfies-saturated entrance as Smiley almost worthy of a 1930s Hollywood talkies spectacular!

Besides his mother and Smiley, Jack’s other meaningful relationship is with Betsy the Cow, here given a virtuoso performance by Bronwyn Turei which transformed the beast’s normally passive character into a wannabe starlet, desperate for her gifts to be recognised – the cow’s almost erogenous response to being milked by Jack produced great amusement as well as a surprising end-result! Later in the story Turei again made something theatrically distinctive of Betsy’s stratospheric “mirror-image”, Goosey, the Giant’s source of wealth as the producer of the famed Golden Eggs – all most enjoyable!

Throughout the action the energies, the zany characterisations and the outlandish one-liners kept our attentions stoked, with the songs and their stage realisations providing the requisite contrast with the stand-and-deliver pronouncements of the script, Leigh Evans’ on-the-spot choreography and Michael Nicholas Williams’ unflagging musical zest giving the performers’ trajectories surety and purpose. And, corny though some of the pronouncements were, the performers made both context and surprise work to the ideas’ advantage time and time again, as when the glamorous Smiley arrived to give Betsy the Cow a “makeover” in preparation for the Market – (whoops! – “show”!), with the throwaway line, “keeping up with the Cowdashians!”.

Important, too that the local environs were utilised in this process, enabling that all-important phenomenon of a group of people laughing at themselves and registering life’s basic absurdities – the second-half ascent to the Giant’s upper realms simply but most effectively realised , with mists and strange, evocative lighting employed to create a sense of “the heights” – one of the characters summed up the transformation with the words “it’s other worldly! – a bit like Stokes Valley!”

Ultimately, the show’s success depended upon palpable engagement with the audience – and this was achieved throughout most heart-warmingly, and nowhere more so than at the beginning of the second half, when the audience’s children were invited onto the stage for a kind of “rumble”, singing and dancing to the song “It’s a pantomime world”, which went down well on both sides of the footlights.

Elsewhere I enjoyed the creative inspiration, communication skills and technical know-how on show, brought out ahead of impressive spectacle and wow-factor jiggery-pokery, thus requiring we in the audience to be actively engaged rather than passively observing. Still remembering how open-mouthedly magical theatrical performance of any kind was for me as a child, I thought Susan Wilson’s direction of the revamped classic tale similarly and successfully engaged its youthful clientele, and took people such as myself back some of the way to those same realms of delight and wonderment.