In Twenty Eight Millimetres' opening monologue, narrator Ethan recalls the time his older brother, Justin, took him to see The Chungking Express at a $1 cinema. He explains how it is his first memory, rattling off the exact prices of the items they bought, and instils in the audience his adoration for his brother.
It's a short scene yet in my view the defining one. It is not until the play comes to its close some 80 minutes later that you realise how that first scene established all that is good and bad about this play.
Witty, loving dialogue, moving, haunting performances and beautiful production design, it has oodles of potential. Even Sam Brooks' script is hard to fault at heart with its moments of cleverness contrasted by pained monologues at the end. Yet the clash between joy and heartbreak is the work's ultimate undoing as the two emotions never naturally work together; two concepts, two stories, forced into one play.
The main problem here is the characters and, as it is a love story, both in the romantic and familial sense, that's a significant issue. Justin and his lover, Ted, are at the centre of the play, leaving Ethan as a narrator awkwardly on the fringes.
After Ethan's monologue, we follow Justin and Ted through the years as their relationship deepens and their true selves are revealed (at least, Justin's true self). Despite being played with charm by Geordie Holibar, Ted is never given much to do but be in love.
Much of the play's downfall comes in Justin's storyline. Actor Dan Veint sells the pieces he has to work with but cannot prevent Justin from being unlikeable. The drama he causes feels forced, at odds with the snarky wit he fires off at the beginning. If Ethan was not there to explain every backstory and imagined location, Justin's angst and issues would make no sense and, as it is, barely work. A diagnosis for one issue is brought up abruptly and pushed aside when the plot demands things be happy again.
Yet when we reach the happy moments, it is unlearned. We are often told there is joy but shown only the tension and conflict; the romance has to be reiterated in order to be believed. Justin has a kind relationship with his brother, but it is shown only briefly before it is meant to be the crux of the play. Justin and Ted's love glosses over the conflict to move things to the point they are needed.
It is possible the play is affected by being in a medium it does not want to be in. With references to Disney princes and the movies Ethan and Justin obsess over, the script betrays the fact that it longs for the big screen rather than the Basement stage.
Tim Earl delivers several heart-breaking moments as a grief-struck Ethan and it's these moments where Brooks' words and Sam Snedden's direction truly shine. But everything before then feels like a different play, one that presents a world so fictionalised it betrays reality.
I wanted to love this story but, like Justin and Ted, a love must be earned, it cannot simply be written into convenience. More focus on Ethan, more growth from Justin, more agency from Ted; the story Brooks wants to tell is clear and is hidden just beneath the surface, but these characters and this story need more to earn the pain that comes later.
What: Twenty Eight Millimetres, Auckland Pride Festival
Where: Basement Theatre
Reviewer: Ethan Sills