Wellington Repertory is a community theatre organisation that has been serving Wellington audiences for more than 90 years. They’re all about promoting participation in live theatre for audiences and performers of all creeds. I’m delighted to find that The Spitfire Grill is a production that doesn’t only have passion on show, but also some wonderful skill and talent. The show itself (music by James Valcq, book and lyrics by Fred Alley) is engaging, heartwarming and gentle.
Percy is a prisoner finishing her time, who picks a small town in the middle of nowhere to “start again” and ends up in Gilead. Hannah owns The Spitfire Grill and agrees to put her up in exchange for working in the kitchen. The usual chaos ensues. Small-town gossip, a new eligible bachelorette in town attracts attention, a son is lost to the Vietnam War, a strange figure is discovered in the woods. There’s something endearingly familiar and folksy about this story. It feels warm and nostalgic rather than dated or clichéd.
I think James Valcq’s score has a lot to do with this successful balance. The music is performed – beautifully I might add – by a six-piece folk band and is gentle and lyrical. Soft melodies and simple harmonies ring true. There’s no challenging of the form, or getting the heart-rate pumping, but the emotional threads are clear and musically pinpointed to perfection.
The cast have varied levels of skill and experience, but the leading trio of women (refreshingly unique for a story of this time period) are charming and largely well executed. Sara Douglas’ Percy softens into small-town life and breathes some fresh air into a community where little happens. Natalie Gay gives the best-rounded performance of the night as Shelby Thorpe, a local housewife who finds independence and her own voice when she starts working at the grill with Percy. Gay’s vocals are strong, and her second-act flourish, standing up to her insecure and suffocating husband (Leon Beaton), has the crowd cheering with the energy of “get it, girl”!! Gillian Boyes portrayal of grill owner Hannah Ferguson is emotionally complex and beautifully weighted. She’s got sass and strength in spades, but when she needs to flick the switch, a softer, matriarchal side shines through and has the audience in the palm of her hand.
Supporting performances do the job and are performed with energy and passion, which forgives some shaky vocals and accent work. Leon Beaton’s Caleb is a hateable misogynist who the audience delights in despising. Beaton has the strongest singing voice of the cast but performs with the intensity of trying to fill the Opera House. I find myself, alongside the 60 other people in the intimate Gryphon theatre, quite overwhelmed by his energy. Pegging it back a notch would allow Beaton’s obvious talent to shine through.
The Spitfire Grill is one of the best community theatre performances I’ve seen in a while. Director Jen Goddard leads a tight ship, which ensures the pace and energy of the show never falters, and has kept staging simple, enabling her cast to find their moments to shine. They never look overwhelmed or like they’re concentrating on the next thing, which is a testament to their commitment, but also to a wise hand at the helm. Overall, I leave the theatre having seen a genuinely heart-warming show. My only gripe is that, at $35/ticket it seems a little steep for what is essentially (quite good) Am-Dram. Nonetheless, with limited options on stage at the moment, for those looking for a feel-good night out The Spitfire Grill will absolutely deliver.
The Spitfire Grill is playing at The Gryphon Theatre until April 2nd. You can find your tickets here.