18-25 July 2019 / Napier Little Theatre / By Tryphena Cracknell
To the poor all places are the same.
Children of the Poor is a hard-hitting, poignant and miserable play, with a few glimpses of joy that are quickly buried beneath the realities of poverty. Don’t expect to laugh, or even to smile – this is a grim show with no light to temper the darkness.
Mervyn Taylor’s 1989 adaption of John A. Lee’s fictional book based on his own life story, is set in the early 1900s in Dunedin. The storyline follows the protagonist, Albany Porcello and his family, sister Rose, brother Douglas and their mother. The father is nowhere to be seen, and the mother refuses to speak about him and the family subsist in abject poverty. Children of the Poor packs some heavy themes: alcoholism, child prostitution, physical and sexual abuse; immigration, religion, the criminal justice system, with the cycle of poverty in which the family is caught under-riding them all.
The Brechtian style of this play sits well with John A. Lee’s work towards social reformation, presenting a powerful socio-political message that compels the audience to think, while never letting them become emotionally involved enough to sink into escapism. Although this play opens a window to the past, the themes felt pertinent in the present, as New Zealand continues to grapple with unacceptable numbers of children living in poverty.
Ensemble plays with substantial chorus work requiring the cast to be onstage, demand a high energy output from the actors. The Napier Repertory Players’ Youth Production cast maintained their energy and momentum throughout the show. All of the actors were clearly carefully practiced, slipping in and out of character smoothly. They coped with the old-fashioned dialogue well. The use of accents wasn’t uniform. Some worked and others felt slightly off-key, walking a fine line between othering and mockery in the eyes of a contemporary audience.
A scrolling series of photographs of early Dunedin helped to set the scene. The stage set effectively framed the show, with ramps up each side containing props and a narrow shelf at the stage rear holding the costume elements. The lighting added dramatic intensity to the scenes, especially those where the protagonist considered his own or his family’s potential rest in eternal damnation. The simplicity of the costuming also worked to good effect. The cast was dressed entirely in black, using signature pieces like a hat or apron to denote each character.
There were a couple of very minor opening night glitches, but in general this was a solid production. Angus Kelsey gave a stand-out performance as lead character, Albany Porcello, supported strongly by the other lead characters and ensemble members. Such a huge amount of work goes into productions like this – not just the actors, but the extended production team from the Director (Adrienne Hurley), to the front-of house staff and it deserves a good audience.
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