We enter the Propeller Stage at BATS to a semi-circle of quirky props, which has transformed the wide and shallow stage into something much cosier. I’m immediately excited that this show has given some consideration to the use of space, and that we might be in store for some hammy prop comedy. My instincts are right.
Stent introduces us to Providence, a bumbling, pigeon-toed and dopey Gloriavalian complete with iconic sackish, blue, collared dress and white headscarf. In a childish and exaggerated Kiwi accent, she delivers a short stand-up set of well-received one-liners about life in the cult. Everything from not talking to the media, to obeying and reproducing for one’s husband and sleeping in a single room with every member of your family. You know, the usual. The audience is immediately on board.
What follows in the hour-long show is an entertainingly far-fetched, whirlwind adventure. Starstruck by the glamour of Woman’s Day magazine she found mysteriously floating down the river one day, she flees the altar of her arranged marriage to a wholesome Gloriavale bachelor, and stumbles her way to Auckland.
Stent sets the scene along the way with humorously homemade props and slapstick mime. A personal favourite feature was how she created a menagerie of supporting characters with nothing but silly voices and items of clothing hung on an upright stick with a pumpkin for a head. This extremely simple recurring gag was remarkably effective in giving her something to act against (a great feature to add to solo show) and never failed to garner a chortle.
The show is also dotted with delightfully overacted musical numbers, several of which I’ve struggled to get out of my head since. Providence yell-sings and stomps her way through the choreography but Stent herself is clearly a trained and outrageously talented performer; she fails to hide how well she can actually sing.
However, one could argue that some of the jokes are a bit simple or cheap. A great amount of humour derived from the character’s naivety: thinking that pokies were ‘fun coin games’ or that the K-Road drag queens were very nice colourful ladies with big hands, for example. Similarly, a great deal of her jokes also relied on shallow observational comedy about New Zealand culture - yes, Kelly Tarlton’s is expensive, and the Sky Tower is kind of stupid. These jokes got big laughs, make no mistake, but they weren’t nearly as satisfying as the some of the many other more thoughtful punchlines in the show.
In short, Escape From Gloriavale sparkled with the polish and showmanship I think a lot of local comedy could benefit from. In contrast to much of the awkward and deadpan style of stand-up that seems popular currently in the circuit, Stent’s bright, loud, theatrical style is deeply refreshing. It felt good not to be at all worried for a nervous performer and to be swamped by a constant flow of giggles from an audience that was clearly at ease as well. As an admitted sucker for this style of over-the-top, hammy, feel-good, gag-filled comedy, Escape From Gloriavale gave me the satisfying storytelling and the good cathartic laugh I was jonesing for.
Escape from Gloriavale runs until Saturday 13 May at BATS Theatre, with its show starting at 6:30pm. Visit the BATS Theatre website for more information, or to book your tickets.