The Surprise Party by Dave Armstrong, and directed by Conrad Newport, is about a tiny left-wing party made up of eccentrics that manages to get itself into parliament. And not just get themselves in. They end up being the only party in the Beehive and govern the country alone.
The party is not only made up of Doug and Kura. It’s the worker’s party and so they have four other working class characters. Environmentalist vegan student, Zoe (Danielle Meldrum), is a complete satirical take on the millennial girl in her mandala-esque dress and Doc Martins. Her tone is annoyingly high pitched and she enters with crispy tofu nuggets that everyone else pretends to like. However, I notice immediately she has something else going for her: determination. When they joke that she doesn’t work, because she’s a student, she reports that she did do a summer in a fish ’n’ chip shop which was extremely hard to do as a vegan, but once she made the boss cook the fish and meat in separate vats “it was a lot better.” I’m sorry, what?! She got a small business to radically modify the way they cook? I understand that this reflects her entitlement, but she was still able to make radical change. Not one to mess with.
Next is Leon (Vincent Andrew-Scammell), a nervous, conspiracy theorist and a gas station attendant who is comically hopeless at maths and in charge of the party’s finance. Yikes. There’s also Sam (Sepelini Mua’au), a craft beer maker and certified barista whom is brought in to show the party’s Pasifika diversity (Doug tries to shush him when he says this), and clearly enjoys the almost undivided attention Zoe gives him. And last but most certainly not least, otherwise she’ll probably punch you, is Ailsa (Hannah Kelly), a Wellington bus driver who’s loud, rough as guts, and unapologetic. Ailsa, like Zoe, possesses something else. She’s intimidating, yes, but she’s also driven – I guess that’s why she’s a bus driver – and bullies Doug into giving her Minister of Foreign Affairs the morning after. Such a brisk character could not have been played by anyone other than Kelly who has a natural comedic flare and balances tough and rough with comedy superbly. She was the crowd favourite opening night, and I have a feeling will keep that crown until the end of the season.
I honestly thought the play was one act after these scenes. There is a solid dose of the situation being totally screwed, it is all going to turn to custard, New Zealand is going to be in the most uneducated hands possible, the end. But no! Armstrong pushes the joke further. After the interval, there are two more scenes: a year after the election, and the last scene is a year after that one.
When we return from our interval, the set has been transformed into a beautiful, cold, marble and concrete oval room that is parliament, with kete covering the overhead lights. Sean Coyle’s set design couldn’t have felt more real. The best lighting for a naturalistic style play should go unnoticed: it should feel very much a part of the story. Tony Black's lighting design does this while also indicating future tension with hints of red in two specific places of the show.
My instincts for Zoe and Ailsa are correct. Ailsa flips the bird in America’s face, calls them “the biggest threat to peace. And a wanker.” She’s a no nonsense person and she’s a no nonsense leader. When gobsmacked Doug is appalled at the way she implements her power, but her response is “I bloody well can and I bloody well did.” And Zoe, through quite utterly terrifying and impractical measures, manages to eliminate road deaths and reduce the amount of emissions significantly.
All the characters develop in humourous ways, some for the worst, but Doug and Kura for the better. The plays ending is both critical and hopeful, probably a good start for this election year.
2020’s theatre season is off to a strong start. Newport's direction fits seamlessly into Armstrong's wild story, keeping it snappy and keeping us engaged. Armstrong's writing is witty and clever; you will laugh and you will go away with something to think about. If you’re unsure if you should head to Circa for The Surprise Party, I vote for go!
The Surprise Party is on at Circa Theatre until the 15th of February. Nab your tickets here.