Review: Joan – A play by Tom Scott “about a wonderful mum by an ungrateful son”.  

As a first time reviewer I was both excited, and slightly nervous when I left work on Tuesday evening heading for Circa to see Joan, by Tom Scott. I wanted very much to like what I was about to review (does anyone go to the theatre not hoping to enjoy themselves?). 

Like a few of the people in the audience who saw  New Zealand TV in the 70s (630pm on a Tuesday brings out the silver-haired gold-card holders) I suspect I was not the only person who thought “It’s by Tom Scott and has has Ginette McDonald, so it must be good.”

Happily the play is good.  In parts it is more than good: delightful, funny, affecting: a play that I’d happily buy the script of just to enjoy in retrospect, and which I hope makes its way on to the curriculum of schools.  Although some parents might baulk at all the swearing, delivered live and with a mix of vivacious relish, delightful naughtiness, anger, fear and outrage by the two actresses who make up the cast.  

The role of Joan is played by mother-and-daughter Ginette McDonald and Kate McGill. In the first Act they traded the spotlight and the commentary on Joan’s life, with Ginette also playing the supporting characters, in the second Act the older Joan took centre stage, with Kate doubling as the Scott family members.

It starts at Joan’s funeral, and then moves back to young Joan as a teenager pregnant with twins (including the playwright) through her move to London, and then by ship to New Zealand to raise a family with her NZ Airforce husband. Starting in Ohakea, then Rongotea, she progresses to motherhood of six in a small house in the far reaches of Kimbolton Road beyond Fielding.

For the actresses it’s a wonderful and challenging part, particularly the older Joan, with several monologues, and near constant time on stage. Highlights for me included the beginnings of each act which started with the older Joan dancing with an air of delighted rebellion and a twinkle in eye and toes (think Julie Walters or Judi Dench), and the second act, full of laughs (the Ian McKellen dinner party story particularly).

While it was good, it wasn’t perfect. We saw the play on its third outing: these sorts of plays improve with time in front of an audience, which will give the actresses time to relax into their accents and parts. In the early part of the play, particularly the first monologue, I felt that the effort to maintain Joan’s (pretty solid) Irish accent took away from the naturalness.

A bit more variation of pace and clearer delivery early on would be good; I didn’t get some of the words, particularly in the monologue early on in the first Act. Overall I felt Act 2 was stronger than Act 1, and that in Act 1 the performances got stronger once the story reached New Zealand (perhaps because the actresses could actually visualise the places they were talking about).

At times, the staging was somewhat bemusing; overall the play it felt like it could have done with a bit more rehearsal to sharpen up some of the cues, and develop some of the secondary characters. For all its apparent simplicity, it is quite a challenging play for the cast and crew. For much of the second act in particular the actresses couldn’t see each other, and it also looked like a challenging play for the technical operator, as the layout in the black-box theatre meant the tech in the box couldn’t see the back of the stage, which may have contributed to some lighting cues being off. More rehearsal time may have been helpful.

At times the lighting choices, coupled with the older Joan’s head tilted forward (a contrast to the carefree youth of the younger Joan) made it hard to see her eyes, and some of the impact of her performance was lost. Some front lighting might not go amiss. I liked the idea of projecting scenes and music on the curtaining – though some worked better than others.

That said, overall it’s a cracking good play, that will live in the memory, and travel well: it deserves a wider audience. Entertaining as it was, I suspect I’ll find myself reflecting on some of the themes and stories in months to come, and hope to see it restaged : I suspect that I’ll see different things in it in 5/10/20 years time as I get closer in age to the older Joan than the younger one.  It feels like it ought to become a modern NZ classic.

Joan – a play by Tom Scott

Circa Theatre Wellington

Adult $52.00
Under 25 $25.00
Senior/Student $42.00
Group 6+ $45.00

Standbys are available for students and theatre industry on the day.


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