Fringe in the ‘Stings / 11 October 2019 / By Bridie Freeman
We’re promised a satirical reveal of arse-covering in this one-man show about municipal water, what we don’t see coming is the tear-down of safe theatric structures.
At Common Room’s main bar we’re offered an ironic cup of water at the door and a sticky name tag, the stage set up as a public forum: water jug, sheaf of paper, pens, while a video plays reruns of a Hastings District Council meeting over and over, the one where the investigation into the Havelock North water debacle is debated – Yule, Hazlehurst, CEO Ross McLeod, a host of familiar council faces. The audience itself is a veritable who’s who, a jostle of grey-haired notables. Politicians in the mix and rabble-rousers. The room packed out and ready for a rumble, it transpires.
Billy Gillespie (Ken Keyes), the bureaucrat consigned to communicating with the ‘silent majority’ enters, takes a swig of water, spits. The crowd is vocal, knows this issue inside out, they don’t hold back the ribaldry, as Billy declares his sincerity, his personal connections, justifications, official lines, dismissing all objections, questions, alternate views.
There are interjections from strategically planted audience interlocuters. Singing. All foils for Billy to make fun of (“You’re not going to silence me like that with your off-tune singing”), side-swipe (“Who do those Guardians of the Aquifer think they are? Angels, fairies?”).
This is very localised, issue-specific humour, and the pleasure for this local audience is being in on it. When the findings come down on “systematic deficiencies, institutional failures”, the conclusion “no one was to blame”, there are vocal calls for responsibility, accountability. “Fine words butter no parsnips”, declares bureaucrat Billy Gillespie, “accidents happen”, you naysayers, stuck on the negatives are just looking for a scapegoat.
The in-audience barbershop quintet launch onstage into song: “Mr CEO, Mr CEO, where do you come from, where do you go? Mr CEO, nobody’s even looking for you.” (Learn the lines, it’s a singalong).
Ken stages another entrance, but this time as himself (“a washed-up drama teacher, a professional shit-stirrer”, says Billy) and gives an informative little treatise on chlorination and lack of accountability, about the same old bureaucratic platitudes wheeled out in every disaster, from Pike River, Erebus, Christchurch CTV building to Havelock North. The choir sings, we sing, there’s applause.
And that could be that. But this is still raw and there’s grievance in the room. An open-floor discussion wheels quickly from the effects of chlorine on pipes and plumbing bills to heated questions about the hot-topic controversial Water Museum. Politicians in the room (who thought they were coming along for entertainment) are put on the spot, interrogated. Will this happen in their watch or not, who did the leak, where’s the money coming from? The ‘public forum’ becomes a Public Forum.
That’s the thing with Fringe – you can’t know where you’ll sit by the end of a show, in the stocks or in the stalls.
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