Central has been my favourite play of the year. It is an iconic New Zealand play that delivers a barrel of laughs while also making you think.
The setting is Central Otago, where author Dave Armstrong got to live for a few months in 2011, staying at the old Bannockburn Post Office.
The set is a large living room with a real Central Otago feel to it. The house and accompanying vineyard is owned by Michael (Tom Trevella), a former Aucklander who is a script writer. His partner is Cherie an actress and also a creative talent. I wondered if the play was slightly self reverential with Michael being a version of the author. Michael has done well not just locally, but internationally. He’s written scripts for some Hollywood blockbusters, but hating Los Angeles has escaped to Central Otago where he can enjoy the lifestyle and work on more independent creations.
Cherie is in her late 30s and thinks she is too old to be a successful actress anymore. She once appeared with Brad Pitt! She has written a script for a film about an older women who is widowed with her in the starring role. Michael is very enthusiastic about the project, which also becomes the source of some tension between them.
The real tensions, and comic relief, comes in the form of Brian (Alex Greig), a local tradie building a deck for them. The down to earth local tradie against the liberal wealthy vineyard owner. They only drink their own Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, he prefers beer – Speights of course. He regards the early gold miners a pioneers, while Michael thinks they destroyed the environment. And Brian’s next job is on an affordable housing development in Arrowtown – a project Michael secretly opposes as out of character for the area.
Armstrong does a great job of highlighting the tensions between economy and environment, affordability and character, locals and jafas without in any way being preachy. Many plays fall into the mistake of trying to impose the author’s views on the audiences, but Central uses the tensions for both drama and large dollops of humour.
Brian has some classic lines such as referring to Colin McCahon as that bloke who spoiled all his paintings by writing words on them (Michael of course has one) and also where he reels off the names of his hens such as Helen Cluck and Richie McClaw.
L-R: Claire Waldron as Cherie and Harriet Prebble as Karen. Photo: Paul McLaughlin
The fourth cast member is Karen, played by Harriett Prebble. She’s their young housekeeper who is a typical South Islander (accent to boot) working in hospitality and also doing housekeeping, nannying etc.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the play is I was unsure until near the end, why Karen was in the play, and what her creative role would be. The Michael vs Brian tension was obvious, and well done. But why was Karen there? Brian thinks he knows her, but she says he is mistaken. Are they possibly going to end up together? There doesn’t seem to be romance, in fact far from it.
Dave Armstrong excels in iconic New Zealand humour, as seen in previous productions such as The Motor Camp and Kings of the Gym. The settings and characters seem incredibly real and almost unique to New Zealand. Central continues this pattern. You don’t even need to have been to Central Otago to feel the vibrancy of the play.
There were a couple of minor defects. The set looked great when the lights were dim, but the central back wall of the house looked too artificial when under full lighting. A softer focus on it would work better. And there were a few flubbed lines, but we were at the preview night instead of the official opening, so probably first performance nerves.
It has a brisk pace, running for 105 minutes approximately (plus an interval). All four actors did well, making their characters believable and quirky but without falling into one dimensional stereotypes. Trevella and Greig especially had great performances.
Overall I loved it for the many comic moments, and the well developed plot with political themes, drama, betrayal and a good ending. Highly recommended. On at Circa One until Saturday 12 November 2016.
Rating: ****1/2 (out of five)