27 November to 7 December / Theatre HB / By Jess Soutar Barron
Thick vowels cut through the air. The pre-show announcement conjures that Lynn of Tawa nostalgia we grew up on, that ersatz-past we took as our own when really our aunties were way more ‘woke’. The tone is set, here’s a play that plays on the New Zealand of Robert Lord and Roger Hall, but where those maestros mastered the mix of hard-nose and soft-belly, good for a laugh but with a deep heart, Alison Quigan’s script is trite and thin.
Just ten years old – other than a few ‘net’ gibes – the piece smacks of 1982 in its telling of societal norms: body shaming, nappies-before-nuptials, domestic violence and dirty clergy are all served out like they’re ripe matter for gags, when really we’ve moved on and it’s just not okay anymore. We’re back at: if you laugh you’re complicit and if you don’t you’re a killjoy.
Those five boxes all kiwi women are supposed to fall into are present in Ladies for Hire: The lonely spinster, the busy-body know-it-all, the lush, the neurotic housewife, the innocent virgin. The problem with that is the model is flawed and boring and hackneyed so it’s difficult to manifest a fresh approach to portrayal of these characters. It’s who the playwright wrote so what’s a director to do?
What Monique Cowern has given us is a raucous and ridiculous silly season fun-fest that ticks all the Christmas treat must-haves: slapstick, quick quips and Handel’s Hallelulah Chorus.
Emily Miller-Matcham has a wide range of hilarious facial expressions that add a lovely layer. Chris Atkinson is excellent as Father Paul but even better as the kohanga reo kaiako. Sandra Alsleben does a great job of carrying the piece along as harridan Harriet. She gives a strong and solid performance that maintains control and pace throughout.
Working with what they’ve got the cast gives this a fair whack, warming up to rollicking-good-fun by the fabulous ‘Farmers’ scene. Projection is hampered by a set that includes a choir loft meaning the action often feels a rugby field away. By the break though – and then thanks to a set of sweet vignettes – the cast loosens up somewhat.
The singing saves Ladies for Hire. It’s through the wonderful little moments of real, gutsy part-singing that the true bliss of live performance is enjoyed, by the audience and the actors. It’s a delight to watch, and it’s at the heart of real Christmas cheer: that sense of us together as a community, having a laugh and loving each other’s company.
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