Erin Harrington reviews Flagons and Foxtrots, written by Alison Quigan and Ross Gumbley, and directed by Kathleen Burns, at The Court Theatre, Monday 15 August, 2022.
Flagons and Foxtrots is a concentrated comic dose of Kiwi nostalgia that revisits the dance halls – and the gender roles – of the 1960s. The play premiered in Palmerston North in 1999, and was a commercial success for the Court Theatre in 2006. The Court Theatre’s latest production situates us in the community hall in Ohoka, North Canterbury, in the lead up to the weekly Saturday night dance sometime in 1964. This production was derailed earlier in the year by Covid restrictions, in part because it invites the audience on stage to dance. This is a bold programming call in the current climate, but also one that raises questions about what productions professional theatres might stage and why. Despite this disruption, the rescheduled season will no doubt be a success. Director Kathleen Burns’ production is vibrant and energetic, often light on its feet. The talented ensemble has a notable sense of cohesion and precision, as well as impeccable comic timing.
The action plays out over a few hours. On a night where hearts race and hands go wandering, there’s even more drama than usual. Sweetheart dental nurse Jill (Anna-Maree Thomas) is desperate for her long-time boyfriend Jack (Ben Freeth) to pop the question and make the announcement, even though it’s soon clear to everyone except her that something’s up with Jack and her stylish best friend, singer Rita (Lily Bourne). Jack’s friend Archie Moore (Finley Hughes) is desperate for their band – still unnamed – to play the dance, as he has eye on a career in rock n roll and there’s a talent scout inbound. Archie’s teenaged brother, and drummer, Pinkie (William Burns), is similarly desperate for his first drinks and to attain manhood (i.e. maybe cop a feel? is that being a man?). Auntie Ina (local treasure Juliet Reynolds-Midgley), who knows all the town’s secrets, is doing a good job of counselling the young ones while squirrelling away the spirits. And Jill’s over-protective dad, grumpy bugger Sid (a wonderful Adam Brookfield) is in perpetual ‘had a gut’s full’ mode as he tends to the hall and calls the dances.
The action riffs on social expectations, the big dreams of small-town personalities, and hypocritical attitudes towards men’s and women’s sexual activities, whereby after a night of heavy petting up Summit Road he’s a stud but she’s a slut. But the play is more interested in giving the audience a good time – and reminding people of good times – than social issues. It’s structure is clearly a vehicle for audience identification and interaction. We have music, MDed by Caelan Thomas, from Archie and his boys, as well as the house band the Bobbin Robbins. There’s cake, raspberry buns and fish paste sandwiches. There’s booze hidden in a nearby pond, locally-pitched gags, and a comic issue with the septic tank. We get lessons in waltzing and dancing the Gay Gordons. The young ones perch in the back of a gorgeous 1957 Morris Minor glugging Wards while hashing out their secrets. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not a play that wants to surprise or challenge you.
The performers, especially those playing the young men, push hard into physical comedy to great effect. Finley Hughes as Archie has a particularly infectious, fizzing energy that beautifully expresses his enthusiasm and ambition, offset further by the fact that he’s nowhere near as slick as he thinks he is. William Burns, as Archie’s 17-year-old brother Pinkie, seems to pogo across the stage in his excitement at his first encounters with adulthood; it’s a doubly impressive performance given Burns recently came out of a bout of intensive chemotherapy. The two female leads, Bourne and Thomas, also give strong and vulnerable performances, although sitting up the back I was little worried for their voices.
And the production is beautifully designed, with the picture-perfect set and dressing, thoughtful costuming and playful lighting showcasing again the Court Theatre production team’s eye for detail. My companion and I are dying to get up on stage for a look at the pictures and honours board handing from the walls of the hall, and to peer through the hatch into the kitchen. It feels like an authentic slice of white-bread rural North Canterbury.
In an article promoting the show in The Press, co-writer and former Court Theatre artistic director Ross Gumbley is quite open that the play, which drew from Palmerston North locals’ memories of dances, was created to be a popular ‘bums on seats’ show. Theatres are commercial enterprises, and populist shows line the coffers so that more adventurous work can be done later – nothing wrong with that. I love being entertained, and the Court is often good at making that happen. I also love that the play was written with its community in mind. The play, which climaxes with members the audience dancing on stage, is also optimised to go straight to the squishy memory centre of patrons of a certain age, and perhaps their children. You could hear a near running commentary from patrons near us throughout the show: do you remember? The Viennese Waltz! Blackberry Nip! Curried eggs! They lined up like that too! Again, nothing wrong with that, so long as you know who is buying the tickets.
But I come away from this production thinking about what it means to revive New Zealand work. I’m struck that this production coincides with two other revivials: Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Oscar Kightley’s 1997 play Dawn Raids opens today, and Circa’s production of Renée’s 1984 play Wednesday to Come wraps up this week. Whether weighty or light-hearted, storytelling set in previous eras offers us the opportunity to simultaneously reflect on where we’ve come from through the lens of the present, and use the past to illuminate present day concerns. These are the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves. Revivals, specifically, must grapple with a work’s setting and its original context, as well as its relevance to the present day. In a resource-scarce environment like professional theatre, throwing time, money and energy into any mainstage work – including a work that was last staged far less than 20 years ago – is a statement. But what is the programming of this work saying?
Nostalgia might give you a buzz, but if it doesn’t move past do you remember? it’s just a palliative. It’s as political, in its own way, as Kightley and Renée’s work. This is a charming, energetic, well-designed production with very strong performances, but my companion and I leave thinking ‘why this play, why now?’ I honestly don’t have an answer.
Flagons and Foxtrots runs at The Court Theatre until 17 September, 2022.