Review: At the Wake (Circa Theatre)
Updated: Jun 2
When there is any arts festival on, it can be easy to forget that productions are still being put on outside of it. While the New Zealand Festival and the New Zealand Fringe rage on throughout the city, Circa Theatre still pull in impressive crowds, and their latest production of Victor Roger's play "At the Wake", directed by Jane Yonge, is no exception. A dark comedy that sees ageing actress Joan (Lisa Harrow), grieving alongside her grandson Robert (Marco Alosio) at her daughter's funeral and wake, outraged at the unexpected appearance of Robert's estranged father Tofi (Jerome Leota). Insults are hurled, tears are shed, and a $300 bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label is drunk as the three generations sit in the same room for the first time and try to come to terms with each other.
The chemistry and relationships of the characters are the heart of the play, and for a ninety minute performance to make you care about three characters who, for most of the run time, sit and drink, they all need to have great depth in their performances and writing. Joan is crass, vulgar, and even petulant at times. Given that the rebellious and sexual grandmother has become over-saturated as a character type in recent years, there is a balancing act between the farcical staple and the reserved stereotype, and one that is played beautifully here. In every sentence, both in Harrow's performance and in the writing, Joan comes across as someone filled with both rage and pride.
Though we later see her as being unapologetically outrageous, time is taken in the opening scene to show her underlying emotions throughout - her grief at the loss of her daughter, joy at seeing her grandson again, and solitude as she loses her second child ("To paraphrase Oscar Wilde; 'To lose one child may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness'"). Yonge's direction and ability to blend tones between mournful and comical are perfectly illustrated in the opening moments of the performance. Classical music plays as Joan enters the room, smoking, sitting for a moment, wiping a tear from her eye before composing herself and sauntering downstage before complaining loudly that "that bastard dog has shit on my lawn". It is predictable, perhaps, but it immediately establishes how layered she is as well as the style of comedy we will see throughout the performance.
Harrow's chemistry with Alosio is authentic and heartwarming, with their role reversal with Robert monitoring his grandmother's behaviour creating a really interesting dynamic. Alosio perfectly portrays all of his character's internal conflicts; between loving his grandmother and being irritated by her, between wanting a relationship with his father whilst showing respect for his mother, and between his loyalties to his feuding relatives. Initially, I found Leota's reserved performance, while not in anyway bad, to be easily exchangeable. As the play goes on, however, the tension builds and so does Leota's stage presence and force, and we get an emotional pay off from his earlier, quieter performance.
When the tension does build, there are still comedic moments that keep the tone balanced, but what makes this play so strong is how many unexpected twists there are. Each new revelation and shocking remark still take you aback, which is a credit to the production for not letting repetition numb the audience to every turn the story takes. The final stage image does not quite live up to what came before it. The tangles of relationships ultimately leave them with not much to say to one another. Even so, "At The Wake" is tightly written, stunningly performed, and attentively directed. Four stars.