TRUTH WINS THROUGH
A SHORTCUT TO HAPPINESS
By Roger Hall
Directed by Ross Jolly
Presented by arrangement with Playmarket
at Circa One, Wellington
From 14 Apr 2012 to 26 May 2012
[2hrs 30mins, incl. interval]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 15 Apr 2012
I have often felt that Roger Hall's plays have more depth and integrity than they are sometimes given credit for by those who do them and this Circa production of A Shortcut to Happiness, directed by Ross Jolly, proves it.
Hall's premise for bringing a disparate group of mostly senior people together is international folk dancing classes, run in a bland church hall by Natasha, a Russian immigrant who also cleans houses but is desperate for conversation in order to improve her English so she can pass the language exam that will allow her to teach music, which is her greatest love.
Elena Stejko, who created this role in the Fortune Theatre world premiere (and was one of the key people Hall talked to in researching how immigrants find life in New Zealand), brings heartfelt passion to Natasha, grounding every fateful twist in her circumstances in emotional truth: an exemplary performance.
Likewise Peter Hayden draws us inexorably into the very different world of Ned, a retired accountant whose wife died of breast cancer not long ago. It is he who quotes American novelist Vicki Baum – "There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them" – and he who helps Natasha to come to terms with Kiwi life and the English language.
As with most romantic comedies, we sense they are destined for each other at the outset but some powerfully written and beautifully acted scenes thwart our hopes and expectations. This, along with a number of other setups that pay off brilliantly, prove what a splendid craftsman Roger Hall is.
Although the other characters are more reactive than proactive, they are each furnished with a strong back story that allows them to be just as authentic in each situation as Natasha and Ned. And when they are, it works a treat.
At times on opening night, however, some actors undermined the credibility of their characters by demonstrating the idea of them rather than simply being them. It was instructive to hear the auditorium go silent on such occasions – and a converse pleasure to join in the laughter where truth supported a well turned one-liner or the credible release of some stress or tension we believed in.
There is little pleasure to be had in watching characters held up to ridicule and when actors don't trust the writing, themselves or us to get it, so try to spoon-feed us, it's alienating. I hope, as the season goes on, the moments thus cheapened will achieve the wholeness and richness they deserve – something this cast is clearly capable of – not least because it will make the production even more entertaining.
Coral (Jane Waddell) is the victim of her ex-husband's failed 'blue chip' investments and, having to count every cent, has come to the classes to find a better man.
Janet (Cathy Downes, who originated the role in Dunedin) is less than ideally married to Tony (unseen) and has brought her friend Laura (Donna Akersten), whose Colin died last year, to the classes. As a foursome they have holidayed, played golf and bridge together, and the quest is to find her a man to reinstate the status quo. This makes for an intriguing and complex relationship as the ground beneath them shifts.
Attending the classes as a couple are compulsive course-joiners and U3A students Bev (Carmel McGlone) and Ray (Tim Gordon). The deeply earnest Bev is fixated on researching everything and leading the way, while Ray – who never gets to say a word – just tags along. Fascinatingly for a virtual nonentity role, Gordon inhabits Ray totally, commanding our empathy and generating great whoops of hilarity as a result: a joy to behold.
Matthew Pike completes the cast in the cameo role of Coral's 'Facebook find', Sebastian, dastardly master of the cool seductive moves. His physicality is spot on but he delivers his lines in the phoney mode of a 1950s musical. We have to hope this too will be remedied as the season progresses.
The dance sequences, choreographed by Sacha Copland, are perfectly pitched to show the evolution of such a class and of each character in the process. We can readily identify with each iteration, assessing how well or badly we would cope with the different demands of each style and sensing the joy of getting into the groove at last. (“Love is a lot like dancing," Vicki Baum also said: "you just surrender to the music.”)
A revolving stage accommodates John Hodgkins' dual settings of the nondescript church hall and Ned's neat apartment, lit by Phillip Dexter. Folk dance music (compiled by Paul Stent and Ross Jolly) accompanies the transitions as the structure looms portentously through the darkness before settling into the background once more.
There are real things at stake for everyone at some level; the happiness each person seeks is in constant jeopardy. It's the downward pressure that causes the true comedy to erupt, and it is because of the problems the characters face that the joy they – and we – experience is elevating. (Baum again: “In life as in dance: grace glides on blistered feet.”)
(Possible spoiler alert)
One section is especially hilarious for a range of reasons. Early on Natasha dismisses the notion of hoe-down square-dancing as a legitimate form of folk dance. Later, while she's away sitting her language exam, the class indulges … When she catches them out, the diatribe she delivers against their predilection for mindless "instant fun" devoid of beauty, and the revelation that her true fear is that she might enjoy it, has a strong resonance in relation to the attitudes that have been expressed over the years about Roger Hall's populist plays. It's a brilliant riposte from Hall that works a treat in the play, thanks to the honest and unbridled passion Stelko brings to it. (Alert ends – although there is plenty more about this sequence that I have not revealed.)
In its observations of Kiwi life from an immigrant's perspective, A Shortcut to Happiness offers a contemporary update on Hall's somewhat autobiographical hit, Prisoners of Mother England, subtitled 'New Zealand, 1958-1968, or Ten Years Hard', which follows a group of English immigrants from their arrival in NZ till ten years later. There is many a laugh to be had from seeing ourselves as others see us: a gift Roger Hall continues to give.
The levity to be experienced from attending this play is in direct proportion to the depth of the truths it explores, and on opening night that truth won through to inspire enthusiastic applause and many curtain calls.
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See also reviews by:
Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);
Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);