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Print Version

a play by Roger Hall with music and lyrics by Peter Skellern
Directed by Jane Waddell

at Circa One, Wellington
From 23 Feb 2013 to 30 Mar 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 24 Feb 2013

Accompanying himself on the grand piano, a charming Tom McLeod tells us, in song, that this is the tale of all of us. Well yes, given everyone is necessarily someone's child and grandchild, if not a parent or grandparent. There is a gently sardonic Sondheimesque note in his suggestion that while it's very nice to have children of your own, it is even better when they've left home. 

When Lynda Milligan's Kath shuffles on in the half light, I fear we are about to be treated to a clichéd ‘decrepit old lady' granny. But no; this is a ‘book-end' device. As she introduces herself and prepares to share her grandma's ‘brag book' photo album, a spritely George Henare – as Maurice – bounds on to tell her people aren't interested in other people's grand children. And so we segue back to where it all began: the grand-parenting, that is.

Roger Hall's script combines past-tense narration with present-tense re-enactment plus the odd bit of bridging narration from Tom, who is conveniently privy to the whole story. Peter Skellern's songs capture aspects of their grand-parenting through its enumerated stages.

While we learn nothing of Kath and Maurice's lives in the wider world – e.g. their working lives and outside interests, apart from Maurice's golf – we do learn their lawyer daughter Annabel, who wanted it all (as in the high life with all the trimmings) at 33, was in no hurry to settle down to wifedom and motherhood.

Maurice, for whom retirement means watching sport on TV and playing the odd round of golf, wants to know (in song) why mothers always meddle, while Kath sings of the biological clock and how a woman's life is incomplete without the patter of tiny feet.

And so the show works its methodical way through the story of the children partnering up – high-flying Annabel with ‘more money than taste' James; vegetarian Mark with equally ‘green' and English Julia – to produce a tidy boy-girl brace of children per couple.

Over the decade or two spanned by the show, Kath seems to have no other purpose in life than to be a doting grandmother, so there are none of the complications involving clashing commitments or divided loyalties, on her part at least.

Maurice professes a grumpy disinterest until he meets his first grandchild and then, of course, he is just as doting, although more of one grandson than the other, until a late breakthrough occurs.

It is small things like that, and nits, and the question of who will have Christmas with whom, and the wrench of an overseas job, which infuse small doses of dramatic conflict into their otherwise remarkably smooth ride as grandparents.

The rhythm and pace is varied mostly by the differing styles and contents of the songs, from the lovingly lyrical ‘It's Such a Miracle' through Maurice's splendidly aerobic ‘Pram Song' and the anguish of his ‘Twice A Night Tinkle Tango' to Kath's vamped ‘I Still Got It, Honey!' (channelling Ethel Merman) in the first half; from the poignant ‘They Grow Up So Quickly', the comical duet ‘My Hearing Is Absolutely Fine' and the technologically challenged ‘The Age of Bewilderment' through the beautifully harmonised ‘Home For Christmas' to ‘The Years Go By So Quickly' in the second half, culminating in the feel-good ‘Grandmas & Grandpas Live Forever'.

There is wry social commentary on male versus female perceptions, generational differences in the costs of parenting; Kiwis v the English; advancing age, diminishing health and the consequent change in accommodation; living in the moment v valuing family history … Nothing confronting or challenging but there is many a smile to be had on the way.

I can't help wondering how much more this might have grown if some rigorous dramaturgical ‘what ifs' and ‘what would it takes' had been applied throughout the development phase, to reflect the less agreeable aspects of contemporary life that inevitably impact the experience of grandparenthood and put it to the test.

The lack of backstory and defining characteristics in Kath and Maurice relegates the actors to being presenters of the broadly sketched ideas of their characters with only a few opportunities to ‘be' them, which rather short-changes both them and us. Perhaps this is why Henare over-projects to begin with, as if to compensate. But they both go on to perform with consummate flair, mellifluous and articulate in song and perfectly pleasant to be with.

A question also arises as to whether the pianist could be more than a sideline commentator. What would it take for him (or her, in another production) to be more integrated? What if, for example, he (or she) turned out at the end to be one of the children or grandchildren, now living close to the widowed Kath (or where Kath now spends much of her time)? The fact that he joins them to sing ‘Home For Christmas' makes this look like an idea waiting to happen.

There is another dimension that arises specifically from the casting of George Henare (who originated the role in the Centrepoint premiere last year, along with Lynda Milligan). Normally the convention of ‘colour-blind casting' would quite rightly go unremarked, as with his Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night or Hector in The History Boys, to name but a few of his many and varied roles. But here Henare's own family photos are used to evoke the contents of an older photo album, so Maurice's Maori heritage becomes an explicit part of the play. Yet it is never referred to in the text.

What are we to make of this? That he is fully assimilated into Pakeha culture and none of his grandchildren ask any questions about that? That makes for a sad and erroneous portrait of modern New Zealand. So I can't help pondering the possibilities of this particular marriage having allegorical resonance nationwide and for this small country in its global context. Yes I know, that's probably a whole other play but it is a comment on this production that I am provoked me to think about this. (And I do realise that going that way might reduce its marketability in other countries, although there is no reason why the text should be so ‘set in concrete' as to not be equally adaptable to other cultural contexts.)

The costumes, by Sheila Horton, affirm the couple's comfortable middle class lifestyle and Andrew Foster's set cleverly uses David Hockney-style photo collages to support the idea that this is a memory play.

After a somewhat fragmented first half, You Can Always Hand Them Back gains better traction after the interval with the best being left to last thanks to the ‘downward pressure' of Maurice's declining health. Henare's physical metamorphosis into severely diminished physical capacity before our very eyes is testament to his great skill as an actor, and the pathos and empathy this produces adds immeasurable value to the evening.

It all ends happily with a death-defying tango-beat song-and-dance, to send us smiling into the night. 
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