23 June 2017, Napier Little Theatre

It was a dark and stormy night – no, really – as I made my way through the rain and fog to Little Theatre, tucked between colonial cottages on McGrath St and the railway line. It’s an intimate, well-loved space for an evening of live entertainment, and the place was full, the audience seated at long tables in careful arrangements.  When the lights came up at interval, waiters in ties and shiny, black waistcoats brought out trays of plunger coffee and steaming teapots, plates of slices. These were actors from the Napier Repertory Players, playing expertly their parts as host – “Madame, more tea?” – while we played ours as the appreciative, encouraging audience, passing round the milk jug, making conversation. Here in the cosy, civilised world of amateur theatre, collaboration, human interest and enthusiasm for the art of a good story are palpably evident.

The entertainment is a play by the late Terry Coyle, a significant contributor over many years to Hawke’s Bay’s theatre scene, and directed by a sure-handed Cefyn Gauden.

Whatever takes place in the living room of a modern home over the course of a day, as a soon-to-be-divorced couple, the infinitely pragmatic, amenable Emma and flawed, philandering Rob, divvy out their shared possessions, reminisce about the past, and try not to but inevitably ‘go there’ with old wounds and what went wrong.

Conflict and drama is brought in with the addition of Meg, the busybody  ‘mother-in-law from hell’, who arrives to lend her support along with her ever good-natured, philosophical husband, Bruce, and the appearance of dashing house stylist, Claire – come to prepare the family home for market, and who, it transpires, knows Rob a little too well already.

The play paces through the climactic rises and deflections of tension with deftly managed scene changes and, on the whole, credible, engaging performances. The line, ‘Whatever’, thrown off with adolescent derision, is picked up as the refrain throughout the play by each of the different characters; it underscores the self-created, often deluded stories we tell ourselves and others; in other words, who are we trying to kid? The final reveal offers something of a punchline, solving a little puzzle of temperament, and recasting roles and dynamics.

Wine consumption is a conspicuous element, rolling from a “nice red” to “I’ll fetch another bottle of chardonnay, then”, and I kept waiting for a deeper reaching comment on New Zealand drinking culture or for some self-referential sense of irony. Likewise, with the many jokes on infidelity and male lust, the script never leads us beyond the surface to challenge narrative assumptions. But then, this modern sitting-room comedy is less a socio-cultural commentary on our times and more a TV soap on fast spin, recreating an ordinary, everyday world of relationships and mediocre lives for our amusement.

The buzz of the human dynamic alone, both on and offstage, makes this an amusement worth seeking, outside the TV sets and social media feeds, on a cold winter’s night.

Whatever plays at Napier Little Theatre until 1 July.

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