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October 10, 2011 | by  | in Arts Theatre | [ssba]

The Engine Room

In a New Zealand that is enjoying (enduring?) both a Rugby World Cup and an election year, what two stories of our past could be more appropriate than the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand and the 2008 election? The Engine Room tells two stories in parallel; John Key and Helen Clark in 1981 deciding to protest or not to protest, and John Key and Helen Clark feeling the effects of their decisions in the lead up to the 2008 general election.

In 1981 Mr Key is ambivalent teenager being pressured into picking a side. Ms Clark is being pressured to lay off the protest by her father. Helen goes to protests, John drinks beer. We count down to the final between the All Blacks and the Springboks, and we wait with bated breath to find out how the match will unfold for both the protesters and the passive bystanders.

In 2008, Helen is prime minister. Her commitment to the Labour party has seen her rise to leader and she is attempting to retain her title, but John is closing the gap…
McCubbin has mashed together two hot topics; politics and rugby. The comparison of political race and rugby game is a key part of McCubbin’s writing, and it informs the staging, set and costume. As Helen Clark reminds us; “it’s just what you do to play the game”. The metaphor climaxes with a sublime final sequence fusing rugby, protest, and voting.
This is all played out on a delightful unit set that is full of surprises and the lighting, projections and sound design are impeccable.

There is a fine line to walk when portraying well-known politicians, particularly when blending actual interviews and quotes with fictional conversations. John and Helen are crafted as figures that don’t ignore the stereotypes as much as imbue them with humanity and dignity.

Alex Greig plays a slightly gawky John Key, someone who wants to be everyone’s friend and is inspired by Obama’s use of slogans. To my mind, his reaction against the tour, rather than a refusal to take sides, is a response to the extremities of one side or the other. Harriette Cowan is the perfect Aunty Helen Clark. Her authoritative gravelly voice endeared her to the entire BATS audience within one word. Eerily accurate, Cowan pulls of the public and private Clark with dexterity and charm.

The remaining two cast members play a scattering of politicians, interviewers and protesters. Erin Banks is nothing short of incredible; she plays her bit parts with a confidence and comic flair. Her Gerry Brownlee is a mini-masterpiece and her more human Joan Caulfield (née Anderton) is presented with sensitivity and compassion. Paul Harrop does a wonderful job rounding out the remaining family members and press secretaries.

Rather than affirming one political ideal over another, McCubbin focuses on the human story behind the political games. What vigorous Labour supporter hasn’t wondered what Helen thought after she stood down, and what YoungNat wouldn’t be interested in which TV programme John Key watched the day after his election? Like Taki Rua’s Awhi Tapu, this is provocative New Zealand theatre about our recent past for a 2011 audience. Whether you were for or against the tour, or for or against National or Labour, this play is for us. It’s relevant, it’s hilarious, it’s stylish, and it’s on now. The Engine Room is the sort of play every university student should see.

The Engine Room
By Ralph McCubbin Howell
September 27 – October 8 at BATS


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