Review: At the Wake by Victor Rodger

At the Wake by Victor Rodger, starring Lisa Harrow

Circa Theatre Opening night 6:30pm, 21 March 2018

I haven’t seen any of playwright Victor Rodger’s work before: based on this work “At the Wake”  I’m a fan. To (possibly mis) quote a line from the second act: “Is it funny: Hell Yes!”

The play begins not at the wake, but before it, where Lisa Harrow’s retired actress Joan, and her grandson Robert (Toi Whakaari student Marco Alosio) are preparing for the funeral of her daughter/his mother Olivia. Later they’re joined by Robert’s father Tofi (Jerome Leota) who Joan hasn’t forgiven for abandoning her daughter when 15 and present. I have a clear mental picture of Robert’s stepfather Gary as well – who although he’s not present on stage, is deftly painted (a tribute to the players and playwright’s skills).     

The play takes places at Joan’s house, the funeral, and the wake itself.  I liked the overall design: two reflective black side walls, and a back and floor with a wooden panelling effect – the overall aesthetic was reminiscent of funeral chapel.

The theatre was laid out with a double width central aisle and unassigned seating, which means arriving to the theatre puts you in the position of people arriving at a funeral and needing to find a spot, looking around, seeing if there’s anyone you know or recognise, and clambering over others for a seat: apt for a play set at a funeral where the crowd become the congregation.

I have seldom enjoyed being part of an audience quite so much: The opening night crowd was a diverse bunch, including what I guess are Circa stalwarts, friends and relatives of the cast including (from their logo’d shirts) a few drama student contemporaries of Robert, all of whom came prepared to enjoy themselves and warmly responsive. Many of the audience (like ⅔ of the actors) were Pasifika, and it felt more representative of life in Wellington than theatre audiences sometimes do.   

The audience was  warmly responsive to the work erupting in laughter several times at some great lines in the script.

Sometimes it didn’t need a line: Lisa Harrow’s expressive face and well-honed talents are such that she can have sections of the audience laughing in delight just by the cock of her head and expression on her face, her alive stillness drawing the audience in and delighting us.

In support the characters played by Alosio and Leota are less well rounded: and the trio felt less of an ensemble than three individual actors, but the play and players are strong enough to provide a thoroughly enjoyable night out.

I struggled at times, particularly in the first act, to hear everything the actors were saying: the blocking in the first half didn’t help, as for much of the first half the main players were facing away from the audience and the sound bounced around the hard surfaces.   It was much better in the second when the players were more facing the audience, and they’d grown better accustomed to riding the audience’s laughs. I’d have liked Joan’s hat to shade her face less (experienced pro that she is Lisa Harrow found her light, but at the cost of tilting her head at an odd angle).

A very minor quibble: I appreciated that the programme is free, but 8pt font and dim lighting make it hard to read.

The last play I saw at Circa was Tom Scott’s Joan, with Ginette MacDonald in the lead: it’s great to see another strong woman lead, this time in a play with strong Samoan New Zealanders stories: more of both please Circa!   

Unfortunately the run is only until 31 March, so get along as soon as you can.

At the Wake
Circa One

21 – 31 March

Tues – Thurs 6.30pm, Fri – Sat 8pm,
$25 – $52

Duration 90 mins (with a 15 interval)

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