A GENTLE HOMAGE TO FOLK WHO KEPT CALM AND CARRIED ON
By Stephanie McKellar-Smith & Ross McKellar
Directed by Stephanie McKellar-Smith
at Court Theatre, Bernard Street, Addington, Christchurch
From 20 Oct 2012 to 10 Nov 2012
Reviewed by Lindsay Clark, 21 Oct 2012
With three New Zealand plays staged out of the five seen so far in its 2012-2013 season, the Court's commitment to local playwrights is clear. Moving from the robust farce of Dave Armstrong's The Motor Camp (June), to the thrilling, chilling Man in a Suitcase by Lynda Chanwai-Earle (August), the Court now offers a gentle domestic compilation in Pacific Post. The theatre is covering wide territory indeed.
The framework of the play is even closer to real life than the events which inspired Chanwai-Earle's piece. The husband and wife authorial team – Stephanie McKellar-Smith and Ross McKellar – base their work on a letter written by McKellar-Smith's grandfather during his posting to Suva at the height of World War II and she also directs the play.
Ross McKellar plays the grandfather role. It is a close knit collaboration which brings assurance to a simple story, one which will have echoes in countless New Zealand families. The men went off, the women stayed anxiously at home, making the best of things; the men came back, or not.
Thus we meet Hazel and Bud, a young Westport couple, at the point where their cheerfully stable lives are interrupted by all the anxieties and challenges of war. Hazel is supported by Bud's sister, Jean, whose presence brings opportunities for down to earth humour and a glimpse of the wider small town community. Similarly, Bud has his best friend Barney to yarn to and lark with, before tragedy strikes and the mates are separated forever.
Setting the Westport scenario alongside tropical barracks, so that the regular postal service linking the two worlds can be accessed by both sets of characters, is neatly accomplished, and from the exchanges, extended scenes can be developed.
The impression is of ordinary folk, getting on with whatever life presents, each sustained by communications with the other, which, for all their inconsequential detail, somehow provide reassurance and stability. It is an example of the sort of commitment which is not often explored in contemporary plays about married couples.
Inevitably perhaps, the overall predictability of the material, for all its sincerity and worthiness, does not probe far enough to excite theatrically, even when its even rhythm is quickened by comic or dramatic interludes. The opening night audience, however, were warm in their approval, suggesting that excitement is not everything we are looking for. This is rather, a comfortable stirring of the memory pot.
The strongest sense of wartime probably comes from the carefully assembled and projected images of New Zealand troops in Fiji. Mateship is strongly represented in scenes where blokes relax or pose for the camera in those cheeky, smiling tableaux we all know from family albums.
Situations and dialogue faithfully echo the spirit of the times, with expressions just within the memories of some of us – “What the blue blazes...?”
Another eloquent set from Julian Southgate makes all possible, complemented by Andrew Todd's sound and AV design and Leanne Watkins' lights. The collaboration of Pauline Laws and Pam Jones as The Costumery delivers impeccably detailed and appropriate clobber, so that in this respect too, the play presents as a true and respectful record of who we were.
Four strong actors tackle the task of bringing the carefully created world alive for us. As the central couple, Amy Straker (Hazel) and Ross McKellar (Bud) look and sound the part with focussed and clear performances. Juliet Reynolds-Midgley is an unstoppable force as Jean and Michael Lee Porter's dynamic Barney makes the most of every line.
Their energy and conviction enliven a production which is significant, not for its resonance as world literature but as a gentle homage to folk who kept calm and carried on in a New Zealand that will not come again. It embodies the somewhat sentimental prompting of poet Hugh Smith (Uncle Hughie to the same family) whose works are quoted in the play:
“Be good to each other and on the whole
Let nothing ever stain your soul.”
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