Roger Hall’s Middle-Age Spread

13-22 September, Theatre HB
By Jess Soutar Barron

There’s a mean meme that goes around theatre circles: When in doubt do a ‘Hall’. Any season is saved if you throw in a ‘Hall’. Empty coffers will fill with a ‘Hall’ on the bill. It’s a shame because it thins out Roger Hall’s plays to pastiches of themselves, light romps through yesteryear, laughing at how we were, sighing with nostalgia, cringing at the carpet and the familiar nesting tables (“My mother had that very lamp!”).

But there’s more to Hall than all that. He is a consistent collector of our cultural idioms, he captures our idiosyncrasies and catalogues our foibles. He says as much about our sense of self as Robert Lord, Bruce Mason, CK Stead or Greg McGee ever did, but because he slaps a laugh on things, his plays are often diminished to ‘comedies’.

Middle-Age Spread is a poignant and tragic study of the three faces of the Kiwi Man: the soft, insipid Colin, randy rebel Reg and calculating, cold Robert. The three female parts mere foils to this mash-up of masculinity. All the tropes of the middle-aged man are played out here: alcohol, affairs and family frustrations, egos and exercise, fear, guilt, self-doubt and “post-coital depression”, duty, loyalty, regret.

The men who collectively carry this portrait are well-rounded complex beasts, but the women are vacuous, veneers of characterisation, riddled with cliché, two-dimensional and conjured up by male imagination. The men narrate their women’s journeys through motherhood and paid employment, they romanticise their need for adventure and sex, while the women themselves are relegated to binary stereotypes: kill-joy/strumpet, know-it-all/airhead, nag/bore.

The play begins with Colin saying “Sorry” and ends, infamously, with this desperately sad yet funny rapport between Colin and his wife: “What do we do now?!” she asks. He replies, “What we do now, Elizabeth, is the dishes.”

Steve Driver delivers a terrifically sappy Colin. His stage craft does need some maturing, but a season of Middle-Age will certainly do that.

Reg is brought beautifully by Jonathan Jordan who commands the stage, and despite his creepiness brings a charisma to the part.

Emily Miller-Matcham is excellent as Isobel, with a great grasp of all the micro-gestures it takes to bring a character to life.

The army of crew tasked with distributing props between scenes is a disappointing distraction when the job could easily have been left to Lyn Johnson (Elizabeth), and would have done much to enrich her portrayal of the character whose main reason for being is to “keep a nice house”.

It’s a 40-year-old play, the themes are still relevant, but the portrayal of women is painfully archaic and unless it’s unpacked and re-thought it’s just hard to witness (again). There are better Hall plays (Four Flat Whites and Shortcut to Happiness are my picks). And there are better 40-year-old plays! There are even better 40-year-old plays about the miasma of the middle-aged middle-classes trapped in drunken domesticity (Abigail’s Party and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?). But, despite the discomfort of watching our heritage, it is important to reflect on our social selves, what’s changed and what never will. And it’s the inaugural New Zealand Theatre Month so it’s practically a national duty to go out and see a ‘Hall’.

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