One Night Only
The evening starts with One Night Only, a farce about boy bands and bad decisions. After hearing all about popular boy band FourEver from a few crazed fans, we delve right into the story with reporter Lisa Lubgrub (Pauline Ward). She explains how she’d rather be reporting the world’s bigger stories, but is stuck reporting about some boy band instead. Enter M1 (Ethan Morse) and M2 (Jacinta Compton), the band’s biggest fans, who plan to sneak backstage and meet the boys, so M2 can have the best night ever before she moves away. Just before the fans get there, we meet the boys: Clayton (Ben Ashby), the leader; Robbie (Oliver Pol), the bad boy; and Ricky (Jacob Brown), the heartthrob. Ricky, who finds himself with his first grey hair, suddenly assumes Robbie has cursed him, and so, Ricky calls forth the enigmatic Mimi (Trae Te Wiki), striking incredible fear in his bandmates. And through a series of unlikely events and devious diversions, the boys and their two biggest fans find themselves in a deep, dark descent.
Teppett’s boy band deconstruction hits all the tropes of those currently reigning over the pop charts, even making reference to sugar-pop boy bands like One Direction. The clearest of which is how each boy band member fulfils a specific quality that the fans idolise. There’s the frontman, the cute one, the smart one, the mysterious one, the sensitive one… the list is nearly endless. When Robbie reveals he’s not content with being the ‘bad boy’, wanting the title of the innoncent one instead, it’s funny because he uses the bad boy charm later to lead M1 and M2 on, cementing his status in. He’s lived this persona for the lifespan of the band, so it’s become second nature. There’s a lot of comedy within Teppett’s script, and much like a typical farce, it’s funny because it seems so far-fetched, so ludicrous. The complaints the boys have with one another thanks to Ricky’s hair fiasco is one such example.
Teppett’s control of character drives much of the ludicrous comedy. While they’re all ridiculous in at least one way, no matter how extreme the characters are, they feel like extremes of real people. Clayton’s the only one with his head screwed on, trying desperately to placate his friends, while Ricky accuses Robbie of witchcraft and Robbie moans about being mauled with kisses from their adoring fans. The depth of character, even if the character themselves are farcical, gives the audience more access to their objectives and their decisions. The way the friendship between M1 and M2 evolves and alters throughout the play, the way the pair cope with and react to what was meant to be their ‘best night ever’, is something you could expect from boy band crazed fans. And it’s a relationship I enjoy watching, understanding, and thinking about.
One of the most notable elements of One Night Only’s stellar cast, beyond their sheer talent, is their strong stage chemistry. Each performer couples brilliantly with their scene partners. Compton’s M1 is the sensibility and caution to Morse’s flamboyance and obsession. Then there’s FourEver, with Ashby, Brown, and Pol bringoing a beautiful dynamic to the stage, playing off how well the characters irritate one another constantly. This makes for a very active staging. Ashby’s Clayton separate himself from the other members of FourEver with the seriousness in his action; while Ricky and Robbie bicker and fuss about, Clayton is intent on furthering his career, and Ashby’s direct movements and his adjudicative voice highlight the maturity. Brown’s Ricky is camp, high-maintenance, and entertainingly selfish as he strides sassily strides from point to point, and is always the first break out into some suggestive but alluring dancing; hips popping, hands flicking, ass twerking, Brown brings it all to his character. And we get pure joy out of watching Pol’s Robbie play troublemaker and antagonise his fellow bandmates. Whether he’s physically wrestling with them or acting cool so the others don’t realise he’s worrying inside, the slapstick is strong with this one. Ward’s Lisa contrasts brilliantly with Te Wiki’s Mimi, with the former acrobatic and scatter-brained and the latter frigid, frozen, and frightful. My hat’s off to the whole cast, and also to Reid for her excellent direction. Combustible stage chemistry comes from a rehearsal environment where everyone feels like they can be comfortable and vulnerable with each other. The ensemble is a powerful, hilarious, engaging force.
The design work slots aptly into Reid’s vision and aesthetic, but what’s best about the design from this show is how each part of it merges together. It creates a sensory experience which works with the play’s comedy and adds to it’s messy, pop-punk, teen heartthrob personality. Isadora Lao’s lighting design is camp and vibrant; there’s strobe, haze, and rainbow lights flood the stage when the cast break into some intense and yaaas-worthy dance numbers. I find the set design (also by Lao) inventive; webbing-like material hung from the ceiling, with t-shirts, discarded clothing, and even underwear plastered across them, leading me to assume it can’t all belong to the three boys. Natasha Thyne’s costuming shines with the boy band specifically, helping to reinforce the roles they have as part of the three-piece. Clayton’s plain white t-shirt and blue chinos are basic, but support that he’s serious and here for his music career; Ricky’s crop top, fur coat, and black skinny jeans mimic every ounce of extra Brown gives in his performance; and Robbie’s sleeveless black puffer vest amplifies his bad-boy persona, especially when he’s unzipping it to distract M1 and M2. Sound designer Patrick Barnes pairs Lady Gaga’s Americano to the ensemble’s opening dance number, adding another piece to an already pop-tastic, energetic show. It helps set the tone for the evening so that the audience buys into the glam and the ham they’ll experience for the next eighty minutes.
One Night Only does run a little longer than it needs to. From a script perspective, we’re treated to what seems like multiple false endings: the audience receives the closure it needs but the play keeps going. A final exchange between the downtrodden and suddenly passive M1 and M2 is humorous, but retreads ground we’ve already covered. In addition, the direction behind some of the dialogue extends the issue, with too much air between lines. Reid cites an hour-long Vine compilation as part of her vision in the programme, so driving more of the lines through to the end would push this vision throughout the show. That being said, some moments earn the pauses, like with Clayton and Robbie’s complete obliviousness of Ricky’s sexuality. Brown takes an elongated pause after hearing his bandmates give him a pep talk about the thousands of smiling girls out in the concert stadium waiting for him; he stares out at the audience with a blank yet awkward countenance that’s just perfect.
One Night Only is a dynamic start to your night. Under Reid’s guidance, the script, performances, and design work culminate in chaotic fabulousness; it’s engrossing, entertaining, and electric. One Night Only is aware of its own ridiculousness, yet while fun is at the forefront, there’s a message in how it makes the audience consider how they’ve obsessed about things in their lives. That’s the beauty of this show: there’s a message for you to take away, but it’s overarching point is to have fun. To that, you most certainly will.
Next up is Fallen Angels, and it’s much more serious in tone than the rest of the festival. I’m confused and intrigued when we first meet Nicole (Becky Lane), dancing sexily in a bright pink wig and tutu, performing directly to us. We then cut to the home of Max Angelis (David Conroy), where his daughter, Nicole, and his son, Brandon (Thomas Hughes), are analysing Othello and eating respectively. The pair are interrupted when Levy (Hosea Tapuai), Taylor (Zoe Christall), and Jayden (Dylan Chewtin) take the Angelis children hostage. We soon find out Taylor and Jayden lost custody of their daughter after they appeared on Max’s Angels, a reality TV show run by Nicole and Brandon’s father. Duncan’s script tackles some rather difficult subjects, like the New Zealand pay gap, disadvantaged youth, race relations, social welfare, and even the sex industry. However, Fallen Angels doesn’t dissect any of its themes deep enough to offer criticism or make the audience evaluate their place in these social issues.
Duncan’s wordy and ambitious script demands careful staging to focus the audience’s attention on the characters’ personal stakes in the political messaging. The geometric set design courtesy of Cameron Rossouw, helps back-up the script’s ideas, giving the audience the impression of a high income home while giving the performers a lot of space for movement. The interactive nature of the ‘couch’-like set piece, which pulled apart into smaller wooden blocks of varying shapes and sizes, provides the performers with several platforms to use during their scenes. Kirkup directs her actors in a variety of stage pictures that help them to use the space they have, but sometimes the reason they’re moving isn’t quite clear. The next step for these developing young actors is to work on giving each part of their blocking a strong intention, as at times I can read a “I need to be here at this point in the play” vibe as opposed to specific motivations.
The staging devolves to a more static state in its conversation segments where the characters spend most of their time seated. The dialogue here unlocks the characters’ lives further for the audience, and that itself is interesting, but I find myself disengaging. And sometimes, there’s evidence in the performers’ characterisation for movement rather than stationary sitting. For example, when Taylor and Jayden force Nicole and Brandon into a game of Never Have I Ever, the kidnappers seem oddly at ease thanks to their seated positions while it’s clear through Christall’s agitation and jumpy gestures that Taylor’s a lot more unsure, a lot more nervous, than the blocking suggests. Rohan Liley’s lighting design helps to liven some of these moments, like when Nicole challenges Taylor to a game show inspired parenting questionnaire and the lighting becomes reminiscent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
Rather than waging critique on some of New Zealand’s budding issues, the script stigmatises them even further, making for a play that seems confused in what it’s trying to do. Rather than scrutinising social injustice, the action of the play works against the political messaging to reinforce underlying ideas that feed social injustice, like that poor people make bad decisions or that sex work is shameful. For example, Taylor and Jayden blame Max and his reality TV show for losing their child. Duncan’s script makes clear they were exploited by the show as we’re treated to several scenes from Taylor and Jayden’s episode of Max’s Angels, including one where Max pressures Taylor to speak candidly about her mother’s parenting. However, it’s very difficult to sympathise with Taylor and Jayden because of their actions throughout the play, which worsen from serious kidnapping. They aren’t demonised, but they don’t ‘feel’ human. And because their actions throughout the play are so radical, I grow to believe they lost their daughter due to their own incompetence rather than due to social corruption.
Another example is Nicole working as a stripper, which is only ever referred to as something shameful, some form of rebellion, or some cold reality of not finding other types of work. The play could use this to inspect the stigma surrounding stripping and the sex industry. But instead, it’s Nicole’s dirty little secret, which every other character shames her for or threatens to destroy her with. And Nicole accepts the shame, rather than biting back in defense or owning her choice. Simply repeating the stigma doesn’t help break these attitudes; it perpetuates them. And so, we’re left with a script that intends to expose and analyse our social injustices, but it doesn’t reach this because it doesn’t dip below the surface.
I commend Duncan and the creative team for writing and working with a script that opts for hard issues that our society needs to address. However, in its current form, it feels like Fallen Angels only scrapes the surface of the social injustices it wants to unpack. Thus clouding the core message. There’s promise lying within Duncan’s words and the talent embedded throughout the cast, but the former requires more work in helping the latter bloom.
Attila the Hun
Rounding off our night is Attila the Hun, and I’m more than ready to jump into the festival’s other comedy. We enter the Fat Burger restaurant, in what feels like (and will eventually look like) a grungier, grottier version of Manners’ McDonald's at 2:00am. The titular Attila (Adam Herbert) works in the Fat Burger kitchen as the almighty burger assembler, with a colourful cast of characters flitting around him. Jo (Freya Hope Higginson) hovers around, Tom Cruise (Angus Long — and yes, that really is his character name) on the till, Maryanne (Shania Lahina) flips the patties, and Ian (Isaac Thomas) mans the drive thru window. We learn that Jo and Attila have both gone for the duty manager role, and much to everyone’s surprise, Jo is the decided victor. We uncover more and more about these characters as they interact with their equally entertaining and colourful customers (Dylan Hutton, Celia Macdonald, Bella Cook, and Kate Norquay), and the show serves us a lesson about being true to oneself and those around you.
Attila the Hun is a well-crafted, character-driven ensemble comedy. There’s so much to love about Howells’ script, particularly her control over comedy, her ability to relay the script’s message, and her teetering between the hilarious and the heartfelt. Howells’ comedy comes from the timing of her jokes, situational gags, and wordplay, providing a wide range of appeal. There’s simpler jokes, like the blank stares the cast give Jo when she struts her proud self around in the unflattering manager’s cap, and multiplex ones, like Attila’s retelling and constant referral to his military efforts and failings in Constantinople. But all leave the audience in hysterics. The story is complex, with every character contributing to the wider theme of self-discovery and self-acceptance, and Howells immaculately keeps each narrative thread going. The only character not to receive more here is Maryanne, and I find myself wanting more of her arc. As for the script’s oscillation between hilarious and heartfelt, I recall Jo’s motivation speeches to her coworkers near the end, where they band together to help Attila with his own self-discovery struggles. The care is genuine and reciprocal, making the Fat Burger night crew feel like a family, issues and all.
The entire cast plates up enjoyable and talented performances. There’s the sullen angst Lahina brings to Maryanne; the skittish movements and high, flighty voice Higginson uses for Jo; Thomas uses a cracky, pubescent voice for Ian that marries his tense and anxious posture; and it’s side-splitting to watch Long grow more aggravated hearing the same joke about his name every five minutes. Herbert is perfection in the role of Attila the Hun, giving the audience every facet of the Hunnic warlord you could want. He strides around the stage with immense pride, booms proclamations and converses in a deep, commandeering tone. He reeks of dominance, strength, and confidence, convincing me he’s actually Attila the Hun. I’m especially impressed with his control when the script diverges into historical details about the warlord; Herbert takes his parody seriously, which means we don’t have to, and everyone gets to enjoy his fantastic performance because of this characterisation.
Meg Mann’s costume design aids the cast in achieving and extending their characterisations. For the named cast, it provides conformity with their mustard yellow and ketchup red Fat Burger uniforms, though each character has taken pains to differentiate themselves from the others, (except Tom Cruise — his is the name). Maryanne’s shredded tights and choker add to her ‘don’t fuck with me’ vibe; Ian’s pants are hoisted high to amplify his dorkiness; Attila’s bearskin cape with matching boots and two scary-looking sabres reinforce his physical bad-assery; and Jo’s pristinely kempt uniform shows us how proud she is in her fast food job she’s had for seven years yet only just received a promotion. For the customers, it’s a quick, simple, and effective way for the other performers to switch through the countless characters that enter Fat Burger for a late night meal. The biggest contrast are two of Hutton’s characters; one scene he’s a messy, belly-exposed, drunken slob, and the next he’ll stride through the doors in a suit jacket taking countless selfies.
Attila the Hun is an incredibly fun experience. It’ll have you busting your gut from laughter from the get-go. And all thanks to Howells’ exceptional comic ability, the care afforded by Davies and his assistant director, Liam Whitney, and the talent exhibited by their entire cast. The only thing I can do is clap, congratulate, and chortle while I remember all the great jokes. Phenomenal work!
You can catch the Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre at BATS Theatre until Saturday 29 July. There’s even a season pass to catch all three shows for a discounted price, which isn’t restricted to seeing each show on the same night. You can find out more about the shows or the ticket deals and prices at the BATS Theatre website.