The Surprise Party
Direction: Conrad Newport (written by Dave Armstrong)
Circa Theatre; Circa One (January 18 – February 15)
In The Surprise Party – Dave Armstrong’s biting new satire – a minority party is elevated far beyond their station due to a series of scandals rocking the bigger players. We first join the action on election night and then check in again on how the party is doing the next morning and year later and then finally in a year again after that.
Conrad Newport is at the helm directing the six players through the four scenes where no character is a bit-part player and Armstrong’s one-liners are shared amongst the group.
It’s a brilliant, brutal examination of New Zealand, New Zealanders and New Zealand politics. As so often been the case with Armstrong’s writing across film, TV and theatre, no one is safe – but never at the expense of the heart of the piece. His characters here are absurd, hilarious and delusional – but there’s a warmth that draws us in. These unexpectant heroes are all of us. We might think we’re smarter, or we might sit on the other side of the political spectrum but Armstrong has us all pegged; he has – as has been a theme through his work – an eye right on the low-key, fair-dinkum but still utterly ego-driven eccentric Kiwis.
So we laugh at the skewering – but these clowns were voted in by clowns like us. We laugh at the broad caricatures (a unionist bus driver, a floaty faux-hippie millennial and a Cuban-patois loving hipster barista) but we laugh because we know them, or we are them, and maybe we are them almost unknowingly.
Alex Greig plays party leader Doug. He is everyone from James Shaw and Rod Donald to Jim Anderton and Winston Peters. Though he is on completely the other side of the political coin he is David Seymour too. In short, he is every leader that will talk of aspiration to change and lead but shit themselves when it becomes anywhere near a reality. Accordingly Grieg plays Doug with a ham-fist shaking near-authority. He crumbles and grimaces, he sweats and panics but he is a lifer. He must charge on.
By his side is Kura, the real brains of the operation, the organiser. Bronwyn Turei has long been a safe pair of hands as one of the newer breed of Circa stalwarts. And she’s perfectly cast yet again.
But I couldn’t take my eyes off the four Circa debutants. (Pictured Right).
A note in the program from the play’s writer tells us that the zany, oddballs making up the rest of the characters – aforementioned hippy-flake Zoe, hospo-hipster Sam and metaphorical barge pole-wielding bus-driver Alisa and service station-worker cum mathematically-challenge finance spokesperson Leon – are all played by young actors appearing on the Circa main stage for the first time.
All are utterly brilliant. Comic gold. Yes, the lines are perfect. But any writer and director of comedy knows that their lines live and breath (and strut and fret) due to the energy, skill and comic timing of the actors delivering the work. All four of these characters are meant to annoy you, to appear buffoon-like and self-interested in the deluded extreme. And all four actors nail their parts.
As Zoe, Danielle Meldrum makes the most of moments where she is simultaneously flirty, ditsy and wide-eyed with hope and wonder. Sepelini Mua’au, as the craft beer-championing Sam has a huge stage presence without ever dominating. Vincent Andrew-Scammell is Leon, a tech-fearing ball of nerves who would be an enemy of the state if he had any charisma or wherewithal – his touches of subtle physical comedy are sublime. And his character also undergoes the most alarming transformation.
But the scene-stealer was Hannah Kelly as a bullish bus driver with zero compassion and even less diplomacy. Her eye-rolls were always amazing; every punchline was knocked out the park.
I thought all four of the newer actors showed something close to virtuosity. What a happy marriage of cast and director and script – all being given so much to work with, all bringing their very best work to the table.
But the star of this show – ultimately – is the script. So funny, so wise. Even in the broadest moments of pure farce there were ugly truths being told. I wouldn’t want to ruin a single line of dialogue as it’s my hope that this play runs for years, in venues around the country, and during election season particularly.
What a triumph of belly-laughs and subtle digs, a close scrutiny of the absurdity of politics and the nut-jobs and wackos that turn out for it and tune into it.
The Surprise Party is the funniest stage-comedy I’ve seen in years.
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