Direction: Conrad Newport (written by Dean Parker)
Circa Theatre; Circa Two (February 12 – March 7)
Wonderful is exactly that – a thrill to sit through, 80 minutes of focussed, virtuoso-level performance from actor Andrew Laing; utterly in service to the words of playwright Dean Parker. The direction from Conrad Newport is subtle and assured – but in the end, given it is a one-person-play, it lives or dies because of the performance at the centre. Parker’s script and Newport’s direction are resources for Laing to draw from. They are tools that assist. But it’s his deep dig into his own soul as well as his actor’s toolbox, of course, that makes Wonderful the thing that it is.
We’re in Napier in the late 1950s. We (the audience) are the class of young boys that Laing’s Marist Brother Vianney is performing to. He is the teacher – but what is the subject? It would appear that he has been instructed to school the boys in the worlds of musical theatre and classic films from the 1940s and 50s.
Brother Vianney leaps out from behind the desk – the stage’s lone prop – to reminisce about his time working in musical theatre in Australia; to revel in the Hollywood glamour (The King And I) and grit (Rear Window) of he era.
There are many themes in this play – including, overtly, the power and inspiration of those memorable teachers in a person’s life; the charisma, the boldness, the quirk – the palpability of their passion.
But Wonderful isn’t just a celebration of theatre and film and music – the glorious Rodgers and Hammerstein show tunes fill the room (and Brother Vianney’s heart). It’s also a commiseration for a life compromised. A life in service. And a love story that didn’t just end tragically – it wasn’t ever given the chance to bloom proudly.
As Vianney flits from film to song it becomes clear that as driving as the music and theatre and movies were in his young life they are now (also) a distraction, a bittersweet balm. The salve as he salvages the vestiges of his life before he was given his vocation.
Across the 80 minutes of Brother Vianney’s story it is only Andrew Laing on stage. He must sing (which he does beautifully), he moves, he dances, he issues the full range of human emotions – he is the teacher speaking through gritted teeth as he spots troublemakers mid-speech. He is whisked away into his own dream world of nostalgia. He is the charismatic leader hopeful to take some of his young charges on the journey. He is the man that arrives at his own sad story through the telling of so many other joyous vignettes. We watch Vianney laugh and cry. We watch him come to terms.
Wonderful is wonderful. Utterly. And all because Andrew Laing – an actor at the very top of his game – is nothing short of Astounding.
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