Erin Harrington reviews The Māori Sidesteps at The Court Theatre, Thursday 22 September 2022.
The Māori Sidesteps brings us to a party where everyone’s invited. This big-hearted production, presented at The Court Theatre, has been a victim of Covid rescheduling, but it’s been worth waiting for. The five performers – Erroll Anderson, Cohen Holloway, Regan Taylor, Jamie McCaskill and Jerome Leota – are exceptional entertainers. It’s nothing but quality from the moment they walk out onto the stage to claps and cheers, standing in a line behind their microphones with guitars and percussion, to the final encore two hours later.
The show pays homage to the skilled showbands and performers of the mid-century, such as the Māori Volcanics, the Māori Hi-Five, the Hi-Liners, and Prince Tui Teka, by cracking out classics and party tunes from a bygone era. And it offers a subversive spin on this model that’s exceptionally clever. It laces a warm and cheerful presentation with sharp political commentary, parody and satire. It’s finely tuned, well-timed. The show darts swiftly from physical comedy and sight gags and impressions, from sketch to song (to opera!), all while poking and prodding at the diversity of cultural identity, the place of Māoritanga and Te Reo in Aotearoa, and the complex lived reality of biculturalism. It’s a wink and a box step and a singalong with a side of #landback.
The performers’ well-designed, tongue-in-cheek colonial costumes – dusty top hats, military frock coats, Union Jack skirts over jeans – are a playful reminder of the way the past is always a part of the present. They also have extra representational weight, given the recent wall-to-wall coverage of the Queen’s death, the preponderance of flags, and the questions about New Zealand’s relationship to the monarchy.
And you can’t make this work if you’re not dripping with charisma and charm. The group finds that sweet spot between poking at the audience and taking the piss out of themselves. Their performances are joyful and mischievous. The show dances in a space of ‘relatability’, for want of a better word, and shared experience, that also offers a masterclass in switching up expectations to comic ends, and poking around in the comedy of deflation as you bring the audience along with you.
Jonathan Hendry’s deft direction brings out subtleties in the performances, developing relationships between the players, and making fine use of the Court’s wide stage. It takes a lot of skill to make something so sharp look so casual and natural. I also really appreciate the lighting and sound design, from Jason Longstaff and Gil Eva Craig respectively, which are never intrusive, but which carefully augment tone and pace. Altogether, the design demonstrates how pared back can also be sophisticated and meaningful.
I admit I was really curious heading in to this show to get a read on the crowd. Ōtautahi audiences tend to be attentive but reserved. Court audiences in particular tend to skew older and Pākehā. How do you say carefully that I’m sure that some in the crowd engage regularly with the sort of boorish, anti-Māori media commentary that’s being critiqued in some of the acts? But that’s the point, maybe; you catch more flies with honey. You flip some Mike Hosking and Heather du Plessis-Allan stans with an ‘aroha revolution’, by singing ‘Marae Way’ to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. You do it with a rousing chorus of ‘Whakawhanaungatanga’, to the tune of ‘Karma Chameleon’, while telling them ‘you’re all Māori now’.
At the end the audience leaps to their feet for a much-deserved standing ovation. I overhear the woman in front of me saying she’d give them another and stand all night if she could, the show is so good. I wholeheartedly agree.
The Māori Sidesteps play at The Court Theatre from Thursday 22 September – Saturday 8 October 2022.