LEFT WISHING FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE MORE PROFOUND
YOU CAN ALWAYS HAND THEM BACK
Written by Roger Hall
with Music and Lyrics by Peter Skellern
Directed by Jeff Kingsford-Brown
at Centrepoint, Palmerston North
From 14 Apr 2012 to 26 May 2012
Reviewed by Richard Mays, 16 Apr 2012
This musical play almost comes with its own built-in caution. “No one's interested in other people's grandchildren,” is an early line from George Henare's Maurice to his wife Cath, performed by Lynda Milligan, in Roger Hall's You Can Always Hand Them Back.
Consider yourself warned. Now it's up to the story-tellers – the playwright and librettist, production team and actors to create that interest.
It really boils down to there possibly being two kinds of people in the audience: those who might be interested in other people's grandchildren and those who might not; alternatively: those who are interested in catching grandparentinitis and those who are not.
Hall has taken a bit of a risk with this parlour musical – a risk with style rather than content.
Content-wise, You Can Always Hand Them Back is vintage Hall, this time dealing with middle class angst and perceptions at the ‘golden oldie' end of life. It is almost a combination of Hall's 2008 plays Who Needs Sleep Anyway? and Who Wants To Be 100?, plus singing,and is as familiar and comfortable as an old fluffy slipper.
Now, I am not a grandparent, but I could be, and there were enough people in the audience whose reactions made it plain they ‘got it' – the expectations, the bewilderment, the heart-warming humour and sentimentality. There are puns and some clever one-liners, as well as the more obvious obliged-to-laugh gags with their set ups and punch-lines.
Style-wise, YCAHTB is a mash-up of domestic drama, sit-com, social comment, music-hall, with a dash of burlesque. Skellern's mostly whimsically framed songs are accompanied by Paul Barrett on Maurice and Cath's own living-room upright piano.
An ever-present fly-on-the-wall observer, underscoring and punctuating scenes and situations, from time to time Barrett's unnamed persona buzzes about the room, interposing himself chorus-like directly into proceedings.
What with breaking into song about their charismatic (or not) grandkids (some bordering on the mawkish), babysitting woes, hearing aids, technophobia, a bit of raunch, and a delightful a cappella Christmas song, the three performers are always conscious of themselves as story-tellers, dipping in and out of their golden oldie archetypes to sing, make asides or address the audience.
But what would the production have been like if it had been more stylised; if didn't take place on a conventional living-room/bedroom combo set complete with the trappings of comfortable middle-class existence? Possibly more interesting.
It's not that the singing or performances are inadequate; it is slick enough. It is certainly the kind of show that demands performers who have high levels of experience, versatility and skill, with Milligan and Henare making the most of the material and arrangements. And watching Henare's transition into fragility is like being present at a masterclass in physical and vocal ageing. It's just that the scenario maintains a tightly restricted focus that lacks much emotional dimension or depth.
We learn little about Maurice and Cath other than their status as grandparents, and the comparatively minor confustications of ageing in an increasingly fast-moving and alien world.
This family undergoes no real crises. One son moves his family offshore for a while, and there's some niggle between Kath and her English daughter-in-law, but there's no having to deal with relatively common social occurrences like divorce, broken family, abusive partner, family skeleton, accident, loss of a child, ADD or similar that could provoke dramatic edge.
There is the broadly telegraphed hint that their youngest grandson may be gay, and towards the end there's a brief reflection on mortality. Otherwise it's steady as she goes as the sun sinks slowly into the golden west, with nicely rounded outcomes.
What it means for a musical is there are no high moments to celebrate, console or empathise with in song. I found myself wishing that Hall's first collaboration with Skellern, Kingsford-Brown's first show as Centrepoint's artistic director, and Henare's first appearance at the theatre might have added up to something a little more profound.
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