Last weekend marked the opening of Auckland Theatre Company’s annual festival Next Big Thing. The two-week event is hosted by The Basement Theatre and features some of Auckland’s freshest talent.
The night consists of three consecutive shows, with about half an hour between them. Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda at 6pm, Angels (re:born) at 7.30pm and Bravado! at 9pm.
They’re promoted as a mix of “faith, love and revolution”. This description could not be more apt, as each show offers the audience a taste of all three.
The schedule of the festival easily allows for attendance to just one show or an opportunity to indulge in all three. When What’s Good was first offered the chance to review the festival, I immediately put my hand up for the second option. Three shows that all compliment each other in an easy to swallow format, what could be better for a lazy theatre-goer like me? Turns out, as is often the case, I didn’t quite think things through. I had undertaken the six-hour drive from Hawke’s Bay to Auckland that day, so I arrived at the theatre a strange combination of enthusiastic but undeniably weary.
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda
First up was Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. Devised by the cast and directed by Ahi Karunaharan, the show is essentially a rallying call to whatever cause takes your fancy. It opens with a fantastic sign that says, ‘I write slam not status’, and that’s what the whole play is, an interesting combination of movement, improvisation and slam. Each performer acts under their own name, delivering empowering solos on topics of identity, human rights and beyond.
What is intended as inspiring speeches at times seems to verge on teenage angst, and I write that as a 21-year-old who also frequents this state of mind.
Though maybe that is part of the beauty of Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. It seems that as soon as we reach adulthood we look at those with grand ideas of change and immediately shrug or laugh. Whereas the young cast of this show are actually willing to stand up for what they believe in, not content to be confined by the status quo.
Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda features multiple actors worthy of a specific praise. Raoul Shahil (actor and stage manager) and Tessa Rao are particular standouts when it comes to their individual pieces on racism and bullying. Isaac Kelly also adds important elements of te reo Māori.
Merged with these many moments of protest is also refreshing comedy. The actor that showcases this best is Michael Lough. Talented musically and in improvisation, Lough dabbles with audience interaction expertly. Balancing minor embarrassment with the pay-off of increased audience engagement.
Next up was Angels (re:born). A story of faith and friendship that immediately had me in stitches. Directed by Lavinia Uhila and written by Tanya Muagututi’a and Joy Vaele, the six cast members of this show had me continually laughing.
Angels (re:born) follows a pretty traditional scripted play structure and is possibly my favourite show out of this year’s offerings. The story follows four Tongan church kids, creating endless opportunities for religious stereotypes and gags. Sing (Josephine Mavaega) is often at the centre of these jokes, embodying the overzealous church girl that my Catholic friend said is dead on.
Angels (re:born) is set against a 90’s backdrop, allowing for some amazing throwbacks and musical moments. Shout-out to Eleni (Lyncia Muller) who delivers an impeccable Salt-N-Pepa rap.
Despite his more minor roles, Saale Illaua is also worth noting. The actor clearly displays versatility, playing both the welcoming fa’afafine teacher and later the overbearing Pastor.
Angels (re:born) isn’t entirely perfect. It suffers from slightly disjointed line delivery and a rather abrupt ending. However, the upbeat nature of the entire show makes these details incredibly easy to overlook.
This was the last show of the night, likely intended to be a big finish for those attending the entire festival. Bravado! features live music from Galaxy Bear and is described as an “immersive” and “bold” experience.
Bravado! opened at 9pm and by this time I was completely ready for it – ready for it to blow my mind or ready for it to end. Unfortunately, this was the one show that didn’t really hit the mark for me or my pal.
The show is more of an experience than a play, which is by no means a negative, but it does mean that its late night placement seems a little odd. The audience stands throughout the whole show, mostly standing still with blocked views, plus a bit of jostling when you’re in the action’s path. This probably seems like a trivial complaint but anyone who has attended a similarly staged show will know that it takes a next level performance to maintain attention in such a setup.
Bravado! is directed by Naomi Cohen and Benjamin Henson, and written by Frith Horan, Natasha Hoyland, Beanie-Maryse Ridler and Billie Staples. The show features perspectives from the four different writers, which possibly adds to its confusion.
Bravado! has some beautiful moments, including a heart-warming and heart-breaking interaction between a turtle (Eden Li’a) and a bear (Hannah Horsfield). However, surrounding these moments are other scenes that just didn’t connect, such as a live auction of the characters. This ongoing idea was slightly saved by the very humorous auctioneer (Sophia Cussell) but in the end fell flat – a strange mix of slightly scary but mostly puzzling, creepy but not creepy enough.
Overall, it was the musicians of Bravado! who stole the show. Galaxy Bear delivered multiple bangers, while Horsfield stood out with a beautiful solo directed at her turtle friend.
So, should you go see these Next Big Thing 2016 offerings? Of course! I had minor qualms with all the shows, but at the end of the day I got to see three thought-provoking and enjoyable pieces featuring actors that are undeniably up and coming.
The plays range from $16 to $20 individually or $45 as a bundle. Personally, I think that combined with a large coffee makes for a theatrical experience not to be missed.
ATC’s Next Big Thing festival runs from now until July 30th. Tickets can be bought here.
Production photographs by Michael Smith