Some plays were of course written not be performed but to be read, most notably Milton’s 1671 Samson Agonistes. Yet the four plays reviewed here are not such closet dramas. Three of them have been performed with considerable success live on stage; only one awaits a brave producer. And, though all four contain passages of bravura writing, they are deeply theatrical, and gesture towards effects which could only be realised in the theatre. In Ken Duncum’s case, these effects are musical. All three draw on pop music classics from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. Catchy tunes from those eras are heard on stage, and at certain points sung by members of the cast. In Blue Sky Boys and John, I’m Only Dancing what you get is, effectively a quasi-musical. Blue Sky Boys has been a hit with audiences everywhere it has been staged. The play cadenzas to a climax with a brace of Everley Brothers tunes and a soaring rendition of ‘Bye Bye Love’. Noel Coward famously praised the extraordinary potency of cheap music, and Duncum, or his performers, would channel this irresistibility to good effect. Foxtrots and Flagons, the romp with heart devised by Ross Jolly and Alison Quigan, roused similar popular affection. There as well evocative music is linked to a time of great change. The sweet sounds of old time rock-and-roll being swept aside by the British invasion of the bouncing Beatles and then the swaggering Stones. What should the Everley boys do? Rough themselves up, Jagger-style, or risk being trapped forever in aspic and Brilliantine like Cliff Richards?
In the school Duncum imagines, the sounds of freedom are championed by a new teacher, an old boy of the school. He forms a passionate relationship with one of the boys and takes on the crusty headmaster. Duncum remarks with chagrin that the play has yet to be performed (and his introductions to all three plays are highly engaging pieces of self-reflection), but I wonder of the play could be brought to life. Would we buy a teacher/student relationship as valid and not just icky? Would the musical sequences looks like a cut price version of Mamma Mia? And will anyone be brave enough to schedule it in order to find out? Again full marks to VUP for at least making it available, should anyone risk it.
I read Harry Love’s play in typescript and wondered if anyone would stage a piece set in early colonial New Zealand and which describes, at its climax, a human sacrifice. But the play has been staged at least twice, in Dunedin and in Wellington. In terms of Love’s career it’s an outgrowth from his extensive series of performable-yet-accurate versions of Greek and Roman plays. Then, too, it’s a useful addition to New Zealand-based adaptations of classical plays not by Shakespeare. Like Duncum, Love provides an excellent introduction to his own text. Hurai uses elements of The Bacchae, but it isn’t a direct version of Euripides. Love uses characters who are historically familiar to New Zealanders, and gives them a new, Greek-style frame.
MARK HOULAHAN is Senior Lecturer in the English Programme at the University of Waikato. He frequently reviews live theatre events for http://theatreview.org.nz/.