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Saturday 10 October 2009

Review: Mates & Lovers at BATS Theatre

Posted in: Performance
By Sarah Helm - 25th September 2009

Book your tickets because you won't want to miss this.

An accessible journey into the history of gay and bisexual men in our land of milk and honey, this 80 minute theatrical journey magically progresses you through the decades since early colonisation. Two beautiful and convincing actors are your history guides, with only two chairs and some flimsy clothing to aid their recreation of sensitive, amusing, and significant moments of our gay whakapapa. The trip will make you laugh out loud, rise to anger and want to cry.

It sounded pretty unlikely – an award-winning non-fiction book being turned into an engaging piece of theatre. History book? Dull. But Ronald Nelson, writer, producer and director, has triumphed. This play is masterful. He was assisted by a small team of people. The work of the choreographer John Butterfield and lighting designer Wendy Clease have clearly added to the enchantment the audience feel as they tour through at least thirty vignettes of gay men's lives.

Both of the actors are extraordinary, versatile and persuasive. They are also exceptional dancers, and dance has been interwoven into the stories ably. One minute the men are talking, and the next they are rolling or leaping around in their knickers. The transition is seamless and ends as easily as it begins. Costume designer Brendan Goudswaard sensibly got their dancing bodies into white Y-fronts. And, yes even they come off.

Kent Seaman and Sam McLeod jump in and out of characters so easily that you forget they are just two people playing many parts. Kent goes from playing a confused young man into being an out-there drag queen called Penelope within a few seconds of transition. Penelope makes a few requisite but amusing jokes, as her and her drag queen girlfriend ogle passing men. When they spot a sailor? "Mmm, seafood."

And their Oscar-winning moments? Both revolve around Judy Garland. Of course. Sam actually sings Over the Rainbow with amazing musical prowess and emotional depth. Jealous. This guy can sing, dance and act. Kent's moment also begins with singing the same ditty in another drag queen role. She stops mid-song, breaking down into a tender but fierce emotional rage that has the audience gulping in shared frustrated. "I'm so sick of singing about over the rainbow... I want my rights." Kent is speaking directly to and for you, with such conviction, that you cannot help but be moved.

Politicians and politics feature, as do prominent cruising spots. A mayor of W(h)anganui, but of course not the currently infamous one. At the risk of spoiling it for you, the Mayor is implicated in a very realistic and titillating oral sex scene. And in a later era, Lockjaw gets a few cackles of acknowledgement from the audience. Homosexual Law Reform, HIV, electro-shock treatment, the homosexual panic defence and HIV/AIDS are all present. In between are frivolity, laughter, and a blissful use of dramatic irony. Alongside are illicit trips to Mt Victoria and the Auckland Domain.

There are attempts to include the diversity of ethnicity of our gay fraternity. The takātapui Māori and whakawahine were actually executed pretty well by the two pale-skinned actors. But the Chinese scene felt a bit like it was thrown in uncomfortably for good measure. It just didn't work.

The play is cheap and cheerful. You don't need to be a lah-dee-dah theatre buff to turn up to Bats Theatre. All are welcome there. And for those who are a bit more high-brow, the trip downtown will be worth it. A little bit of rough trade. But I suspect that neither the director nor actors will be slumming it for long as they are talent worth paying more than the $18/$16/$13 that this one is priced at.

Book now. Quick. It is only showing until 3 October.


Mates & Lovers is on stage at Wellington's BATS Theatre. A short promo video for the play is shown below, and a booking form is here.

Sarah Helm - 25th September 2009

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