One-by-one, five women knock to enter the stage and each sits in her designated chair. The women sit in a straight, confronting line across the starkly lit stage, obscuring all but the women themselves. We receive an introduction for each and soon learn of the concerns and events currently important to these women. For Te Rina (Janaye Henry), this is going to beauty school, and proving that NCEA isn’t the only form of education that can help a person succeed beyond high school. For Mereana (Trae Te Wiki), it’s attempting to secure a job after being on the benefit, and maintaining her health and relationship at the same. These are just two of the five narratives in the show, but each are as important and well represented as the next. The portrayals do not succumb to our expectations of what a person on the benefit, or a high school ‘dropout’ may look like. It would be impossible to mention a stand-out performance within the show, as each actress—Janaye Henry, Trae Te Wiki, Iris Henderson (Alana), Ingrid Saker (Jess), and Courtney Rose Brown (Elle)—shows incredible range and commitment to their role.
I’m concerned when I enter that The First Time’s ‘coarse language and discussions of both mental and sexual assault’ will provide an unsettling tone for the whole piece. It can be difficult sitting in a dark room for an extended period of time observing some of the most dark, intimate moments of a person's life, that can sometimes hit a little too close to home. However, Brown, and Director Rose Kirkup, capture a well-balanced tone of the show that is consistently humorous and self-aware, without making light of the serious issues the girls are experiencing. Kirkup also manages the fluidity between scenes well. The trope of the five girls in the five chairs, each speaking individually could’ve become tired by the end of an hour, but she provides moments of chorus, and interaction even within these moments to diversify the static-ness. A favourite moment of mine came whilst the girls were all at the same party together. This was one of the first times we got see all the characters interacting at once, and it did not disappoint. Elle and Jess had never met before, and it becomes clear they are not the most compatible of people, as Elle desperately tries to escape whilst Jess fervently describes why the whole world should become vegan. This is a conversation I’ve felt I’ve been a part of before, and the rest of the audience seemed to find the tension between the two characters bemusing, perhaps too out of their similar, shared experience.
The shows happy ending doesn’t come in a form of complete forgiveness, or love that will be ‘happily ever after’. Instead, we’re offered closure knowing each young woman is seeking help, striving to understand themselves better and what healthiness might look like to each individual. This show is important and needs to be seen. To take the words of writer and performer Courtney Rose Brown “Everyone is always saying we need more female representation, more diverse stories in theatre, and here it is! We’ve got it, now people need to actually come.” I couldn’t agree more.
As I left the theatre my first thought was that of my guest I had brought to the show. As a male in his late 20’s, who I knew felt slightly aggrieved at having to miss the first Lions Vs. All Blacks match, I was concerned he may have found the piece unrelatable, or beyond his own experience. However, his first comment without prompt concluded; ‘That was really good. I was sold from the first line.’ This made me consider how these stories may extend beyond the realms of young women entering, and tackling adulthood, and how they might inspire others to open up, or seek help for their own anxieties and concerns.
A sign of a good piece of theatre, is one that can engage those farther than what it’s target demographic may suggest, and I believe The First Time is testament to that theory. The First Time is performing at Circa theatre Tuesday until Saturday 1 July. Prices have been fought to be kept low, ranging between $18-30, and there is also a Pay It Forward initiative to help those who wouldn’t normally be able to afford a ticket see this show. You can book your tickets or find out more information on Pay It Forward through the Circa Theatre website.