In the last week the Court Theatre has celebrated its 50th birthday – a remarkable milestone. It follows up these festivities with the opening of a terrific production of New Zealand’s most commercially successful play, Ladies Night. First staged in 1987, directed here with warmth and heart by Sam Snedden, Stephen Sinclair and Anthony McCarten’s script follows a group of broke, down-on-their-luck men who stage their own male strip show. This season was due to play last year, but like everything else was derailed. Lucky us, then; we get this well-made, exuberant piece of escapism just as winter is kicking in.
This production takes us to late-90s suburban Christchurch, working-class Hornby perhaps, starting the grubby alleyway of a suburban tavern. Flamboyant Gavin (Hayden Tee) is living in his car and repressed Barry (Roy Snow) knows his marriage is on the rocks. Shy, sweet Norman (Isaac Pawson) has got no game, and sportsman Wes (Shadon Meredith) is worried about his reputation.
When they are booted out of an open mic, only to hear the women in the venue next door going wild for a male strip act from the States, their mate Craig (Nic Kyle), ever the chancer, sees an opportunity to make a bit of coin. He ropes in stripper Glenda (Kathleen Burns) to train the reluctant men. Once they are booked in, begrudgingly, by venue owner Bernie (Phoebe Hurst) they realise they either meet their commitment, or dive deep into failure and humiliation.
What starts as a money-making venture – the Raging Rhinos – quickly becomes a way for each of the men to step up and take a bit of responsibility for their lives. They need to front up to mates like boozy dickhead Grahame (Will Hunt), who comes to represent the restrictive type of masculinity that’s hemmed each of them in. The personal stakes get higher as the play barrels towards the men’s one-night-only extravaganza, and they have the opportunity to bare themselves in both literal and figurative ways.
Sure, there’s awkward pelvic thrusting, Double Browns and bedazzled thongs, but what’s striking about the Court’s production is how wholesome it is. The play has been reworked on and off since its Auckland premiere over 30 years ago, let alone its many international iterations and translations, reframing its portrait of male repression to suit the place and the times. Although the plot is slight, the characters in this production are served well. Importantly, the men’s journey from financial and emotional destitution to self-confidence, via hard work and vulnerability, doesn’t come at the expense of anyone else. This minimises the script’s lingering whiff of #nohomo, making their quest to be better men more about their values, friendship and self-respect – experiments with leopard print g-strings notwithstanding.
It makes a huge difference that club owner Bernie, originally a man, is recast as a hard-nosed, (nicotine?) gum chewing woman, and that stripper Glenda is more than a caricature. We see this especially in a brief and funny exchange between the pair about the viability of the Rhinos’ show; ‘what women want’ becomes less of an abstract thing to facilitate the plot.
It’s a slick show. The 1990s setting is served well by the great throwback soundtrack – Shaggy, Ginuwine – and the slightly grotty set. The tech team has clearly had a blast putting together the final spectacle. The world of the play is also enriched with small details, like Craig’s ubiquitous gold chain, Bernie’s outrageously wonderful / awful heels, the scorch marks on the wall around Barry’s barbecue, and the clapped out portable CD players that get dragged around rehearsals. It feels lived in.
And then there’s the dancing. Hillary Moulder’s witty choreography is outstanding. It brings the characters’ transformations to the fore and maintains the momentum needed in the show’s final strip sequences, telling clear stories throughout.
Ladies’ Night is a joy to watch, and a huge amount of fun. As my companion puts it, it’s a wonderful bit of upbeat escapism at time when everything’s a bit hard. The audience is hugely invested from the outset, whooping and hollering, clapping between scenes and shouting encouragement. At the end the old fella next to me wipes his eyes and says ‘boy, what a show!’ It’s clear that it’s hit the mark.
Hopefully bums on stage will result in bums on seats for the theatre after a year and a bit of uncertainty and upheaval.
Ladies Night runs at The Court Theatre at The Shed in Addington until 5 June 2021. This review was solicited.