I enter BATS Theatre’s Dome to a beautiful image. White-fabric drapes frame the stage (set by Scott Maxim), projection of falling feathers colours the stage (AV Design by Rebekah de Roo) and in the centre of it all a warm glow lights (Jacob Banks) our titular character. Wendy (Prea Millar) sits singing along to the pre-show music, sewing feathers onto wings. The lights dim and Wendy looks at us with an innocent “what are you looking at?” stare. The show has begun.
Wendybird canvasses lots of content all surrounding the growing pains of young women and girls. The expectations of being a “young lady”, first crushes, body change, masturbation, unrequited love, whether or not having babies is good, being sick of the box the world puts you in. It’s all here. I’ve seen a heap of feminist theatre over the last 5 years – much of it on this very stage – and the thing that makes Wendybird unique is its child-like play and the familiarity of the fictional world in which it is set. The first half of the show leans hard on this premise and is effective and well received, with Millar often winking to the crowd and letting us in on the joke.
We see mock-sword fighting, hand puppets, pirate seductions and some hide-and-seek amongst the set. It is in these comfortable conventions and childish forms, that I feel the show is at its best. Nostalgic giggles ripple through the audience while we are simultaneously aware of the underlying tension of a girl trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t really want her. Peter Pan doesn’t have to grow up, but Wendy does and she is NOT stoked about it.
Just as the show is hitting its straps, these conventions start to fade away and by the end of the show we have almost left Neverland behind altogether. While this could be an intentional parallel to Wendy’s journey being forced back home, I find that it’s to the theatrical detriment of the show. At times we lose any sense of Wendy, and I feel that we are watching Millar monologue on her own existence. That is a show I would watch by the way. Millar’s writing is full of pace and poetry and her performance is a perfect balance of earnest, cheeky and just a little pained. For me, it just isn’t the show that’s been set up. These feel like two halves of different shows. The first a unique, fantastical feminist take on a well-known story, the second an autobiographical solo debut. I’d urge Millar to continue developing the work and to start by identifying exactly what she wants the show to be.
That said, the execution is pretty flipping excellent. De Roo’s AV design adds a delightful whimsy to the piece. I love the sections in which a silhouetted Peter (Daniel Nodder) appears in projection and dances with Wendy. I’d love more interaction between the performer and the AV in this way! Banks’ lighting design is full of soft blues and purples and finds a perfect balance between bedtime-story warmth and Neverland fantasy colour. Maxim’s set provides a simple but perfect canvas for this work, while Teag Mackay’s sound design adds a magical atmosphere throughout. It’s a strong design showing from a team that is becoming well known for its ability to create a beautiful stage image.
There’s a lot to like about Wendybird and I think it’s well worth a return season with some further development. For me, similarly to Blue Flicker’s 2021 show Big Foot it needs to define exactly what it wants to be and then dive in full force. Zoe Christall’s direction is a soft touch, letting Millar’s script and performance speak for themselves. While I don’t blame Christall given Millar’s obvious talent on show, I think both script and performance could have benefitted from a more thorough working over in the rehearsal room. I don’t think this show has found its peak just yet!
Wendybird has all wrapped up for NZ Fringe 2022 but you can follow Blue Flicker to check out their future work, and I highly suggest that you do!
Author’s note: I must disclose that I know the team behind this production well. Some of us are long time friends and collaborators, and Prea and I have toured work together and brunched heaps. If you have any feedback, or find bias in this review please don’t hesitate to comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have done my best to provide a fair and accurate review, and always welcome feedback from our wonderful readers!