January 25 – 28, 2012
Engineered Air Theatre
To my mind, every successful theatre experience rests on a fairly simple equilibrium – the duality of a compelling story buoyed by an excellent script and enthralling acting to bring the words to life. Sure there are other layers of a production that are important, direction, lighting, set design, costume – these are all elements that can make a play go from good to great. But getting to good in the first place lies squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and cast. No. 2, written by Toa Fraser and performed by Madeleine Sami, is a play that unhinges that equilibrium causing all the good to lie in the acting realm with little more than the doldrums residing in the story. In other words, great performance/lackluster narrative.
The story, which Fraser debuted in 1999, tells the story of Nana Maria, an elderly widowed Kiwi matriarch, who decides to gather all her grandchildren together for a feast at which she will name her successor. Nana is very specific not to invite her children for they are, as she says, “useless”. One by one we meet her grandchildren in a parade of cliché and stereotypical characters. First up is Erasmus, the quiet responsible leader of the pack, then there is Charlene the miserable put upon one who always ends up doing all the work. Saul is the wanna-be gangster perpetually in trouble, Tyson is the sweet romantic athlete, Hibiscus is the pretty empty-headed one and Moses is the youngster full of boyhood fidgety energy. Two other characters appear in the story, Maria, an English girl who Tyson has brought and the Priest of the village that Nana invites to the feast.
Nine characters in total that, with the exception of Nana, have no other purpose in the story but to play out their formulaic roles as symbols rather than fully formed characters. But here’s where the equilibrium tips, and it tips strongly. All nine characters are performed by Sami who, despite the vast limitations of the roles, serves up a near flawless and remarkable performance for each and every character. Without using props or costume changes, Sami is able to transform herself from the crotchety old woman to a testosterone fuelled young man to a vain beauty queen and back again. All this is done with a Kiwi accent so strong that it takes more than the usual time limit to adjust your ears and even once the rhythm is known, you must be resigned to missing bits of dialogue here and there.
And there is lots of dialogue. All nine characters interact with each other throughout the play and it is through Sami’s strength as a performer that the rapid changes are not jarring or awkwardly comedic. It’s a physically intense piece of acting we are treated to and it is to Sami’s credit that we care about these characters at all. Problem is that even with her superb acting, we just don’t care enough.
This is where No. 2 falls with a thud. The long-winded and two-dimensional script gives the audience no point of engagement with any of the grandchildren. We can laugh at the impersonations, but ultimately we don’t relate or root for any one of them. Nana’s character is given more context and texture and at times redeems the otherwise flat storytelling, but after 90 minutes of trying to become engaged with the story even Nana can’t save the day.
For the guys – Sami’s male characters are spot on and fun to witness, but the fun wears thin with a dull script and overly long performance. SKIP IT
For the girls – Nana Maria will intrigue you but the overall family dynamic is shallow and the female characters are all unnecessarily ugly stereotypes. SKIP IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The barrier of the accent alone might be too much for you. Add on a script that lurches and this is a no go. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Yes I know this show has been produced internationally and won an award at the Edinburgh Festival, but no doubt this was by virtue of Sami’s performance and for me, a glass distinctly half full performance is not a good enough reason to recommend it. SKIP IT