Sean Burnett Dugdale-Martin
Coming into BATS Stage there is a piano to the right and three large white pieces of cloth hanging down from the ceiling until they just touch the ground in a row near the back of the stage. The show projects images taken from the film onto the hanging cloth as well as using them as thin curtains with performances lit behind, giving them an ethereal quality, mostly used for dreams or flashbacks. The piano is played throughout by Vanilau who offers occasional singing to accompany the performances. The cast is energetic and work well together, offering humanity, hope, fun, and comedy into one of the saddest of stories. We follow the child Fa’amoana John Luafutu, affectionately called Piano by his mother, as Luafutu is placed under state care as a state ward. Alongside Luafutu we also meet two other 12-year-olds, Wheels (Ringiao-Lloyd) and Piwi (McGregor), and are privy to the exploration of these children as dynamic characters and their experiences of violence and abuse not only from the housemasters/men in charge but also from the other, older kids inside Ōwairaka Boys' Home.
Special props must be given to Ringiao-Lloyd for his extreme skill and versatility, giving life and depth to each role they inhabit. Constantly crackling with energy Ringiao-Lloyd seamlessly transitions between a creepy, pedophilic Head of the Institution, the lovable, rough-round-the-edges Wheels, and other various minor roles in order to bolster the world of the show. The ability to transition between vastly different characters so quickly, having none of the qualities of one bleed over into another, is what makes Ringiao-Lloyd so alluring to watch.
I wouldn’t call any of this work weak. Far from it. A Boy Called Piano is a masterpiece that firmly accomplishes what it wants to accomplish and conveys its messaging powerfully. I do want to offer something to the team considering how much the team is offering us to think about. I would suggest that the availability of representatives from mental health organisations, or at least someone who is willing to talk to theatre-goers about mental health services or to offer a space for people who come away affected, should be more clearly broadcasted. There was a sign by the BATS box office but I would suggest also mentioning it at the top or end of the show to make it very clear.
During the performance there were a few recurring metaphors, one particularly being the use of paper. It’s a great metaphor using white paper as the symbol of the oppressors as the system is run on documents of paper and they are pristinely starch white, so I would encourage the team to do more with it! Is there any way we could have the white paper take up most of the stage space at some point, scattered across the floor towards the end of the show? Maybe have pieces of paper be added to the walls during the piece, slowly turning the walls white like creeping mould?
My final suggestion to the team is that since the show is on tour and the team may well be away from their support-people (friends, family, etc) I hope that there are procedures in place or methods that the team is encouraged to use to decompress after a show with such heavy content. It’s important to take care of our hauora and taking care of it on tour looks differently to taking care of it at home and I would encourage the team to look into that. I say this having no concept of The Conch’s inner workings! They could well be doing this already and I hope this comes across as me being desperate for The Conch to take care of themselves as they deliver this incredible body of work across the country.
A Boy Called Piano illuminates the atrocities committed by our government onto children. Children that did not adhere to the militaristic ordinary of god's-own colonised Aotearoa and were forced into institutions that beat and molested them in an attempt to conflate obedience with mental well-being. This story had me walk straight from my seat to my car where I wept. It will shift your perspective. Read about it. Talk about it. Tell your friends that these things happened in this country and that children are still being mistreated clinically in the name of public wellbeing, still being taken away from family. I am hopeful, however, that the country is changing. We recently had the Dawn Raids Apology. I am young but I can see that it is more acceptable now to upheave that which was oppressive. To speak out about oppressors even though whole systems are at fault and that it takes a long time to make change. A Boy Called Piano is political, and it does a good job of drawing the story into a more contemporary space with reference to Oranga Tamariki. It is a brutal reminder of what we should never let happen to our tamariki.
A Boy Called Piano has finished its run in Wellington but is continuing on to Christchurch and Auckland. Tell everyone you can to catch this show while it’s in town! More information here.