‘The costumes are amazing’. It is the first thing you notice in the theatre, and the first thing people will say. Designed by Sarah Burren, the glimmering blue cod and orange crayfish outfits look good enough for the RNZ Ballet to covet. The set, too, is simple and effective, using lights, sound and a bit of fake seaweed and rock to recreate a fishtank in a Chinese restaurant. It is in this tank that the two fish find each other and ponder life’s meaning as they wait to be chosen.
Renee Liang has written a number of award-winning plays, including Lantern, The Bone Feeder and most recently, The Two Farting Sisters. Bubblelands is a particularly absurd play: she envisioned the Crayfish as a big swinging rapper like Snoop Dog, who calls himself Magnum, and can put more meaning into the letter ‘G’ than a whole episode of Sesame Street. The play has little narrative tension, and is sometimes repetitive, but this is partly the point; it is about life, and the inevitability of death and how you deal with that. Hweiling Ow (Agent Anna, Flat 3) and Benjamin Teh (Passion in Paradise, Flat 3) are both charming to watch, but play things a little too straight. They are working hard, constantly moving, their timing is good, but you feel they could be doing something more.
In this kind of play, the script is the starting off point; the performers and director have to work like hell to create a physical and emotional journey, one that is cued by the script - not just a demonstration of it. Liang has produced the show and first time director Amanda Grace Leo, with a phalanx of mentors, seems determined to get things right and as Liang intended them to be. Unfortunately, this has meant that instead of working with the actors to make the play richer, funnier, sillier, and their own, Leo seems interested in pleasing not just two, but five, governors when she should be focusing on the work primarily to please herself, and by extension, the audience. As a result, that physical and emotional journey never really goes any further than where they start.
There are missed opportunities; these characters could transform themselves like cartoons from fish to human and back again, but they don’t, they get stuck as their characters as if it was realism - as characters they never quite entirely convince as. Hweiling wears her fish costume so the face points upwards and back; every now and then she slumps forward and we see a fish for a moment, but she could be playing with the effects she can illustrate to the audience. Ben, as the crayfish, seems stuck on his legs too. The best bit is the end, when in a couple of minutes of transformation, status play and deadpan, you get a sense of what the show could be. Everyone involved in this production is likeable and talented and funny and the audience are on their side, but a lot of the show needs to be reworked to fulfil its potential.
Playing at The Basement Theatre until 29 August, and then BATS Theatre, 13-17 October.