A Shortcut to Happiness: Tripping the light fantastic

By Dionne Christian

The cast of Shortcut to Happiness (from left) Alison Quigan, Stuart Devenie, Laura Hill, Cameron Rhodes. Picture /Hannah Richards
The cast of Shortcut to Happiness (from left) Alison Quigan, Stuart Devenie, Laura Hill, Cameron Rhodes. Picture /Hannah Richards

Actor Laura Hill is nursing a sore head. It has nothing to do with carousing the previous evening; blame folk dancing and Roger Hall's latest play, A Shortcut to Happiness.

During rehearsals, the blue-eyed blonde, who plays a comely Russian immigrant and dance teacher, twirled a little too enthusiastically, tripped and banged her head.

But Hill, best known for her eight-year stint as Shortland Street's nurse Toni Warner, is still smiling. If there is a shortcut to happiness, she reckons dancing could be it.

Hill spent her childhood and teenage years dreaming of being a ballerina, attending classes and practising dutifully, but went into acting and never looked back.

A starring role in the romantic comedy A Shortcut to Happiness has brought her back to her childhood ambition.

"I've realised the little girl who wanted to be a ballerina is still quite alive. I was in rehearsals and I experienced a moment of pure joy when I realised I am getting to combine two things I love by dancing in a show. I thought, 'This is marvellous'."

The play's title comes from a statement by Austrian writer Vicki Baum that, "There are shortcuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them."

Given Hall himself has been taking folk dancing lessons, it was almost inevitable a play would waltz - or at least korobushka - into life.

Hill reckons that though she put away her ballet slippers some years ago, the dance training is paying off as she tackles one of the most physically demanding roles she has played. It's also a bonus that her last role, in Gary Henderson's Peninsula at Circa Theatre in Wellington, involved music, movement and working with a choreographer.

"I guess you know where to position yourself as a dancer and the muscle memories kick in."

But her character Natasha is far more than the teacher who transforms her left-footed pupils into graceful dancers, stands back and allows them to glow in the spotlight.

In Hall's deft hands, Natasha is the person who allows us to see our society from the outsider's point of view, which is one of the main themes and sources of comedy in A Shortcut to Happiness.

Though Hall's plays might lovingly poke fun at our lives and loves, there's always a barb in the humour - much of it political - which makes us reflect on our beliefs, the supposed certainties we take for granted and the very way we live our lives.

His plays highlight the trajectory modern life seems to propel many of us along: we work in jobs we have a love-hate relationship with; for better or for worse, we marry and raise families and then, if we are lucky, we enjoy the fruits of all that labour.

Alison Quigan, who directs and stars in A Shortcut to Happiness, says Hall has charted the lives of an entire generation.

In this play, he examines what happens when the circles of life supposedly start to decrease and people without work to structure their lives around and perhaps living at home alone for the first time in years, look to create a new normal for themselves.

"When you don't work and your children have left home, you can start to wonder, who am I?" says Quigan. "We're living longer and there can be a good many years to fill in, so what do you do with your time? This play is about how we create community."

Natasha may be recently arrived in New Zealand, and struggling to find her feet in her new world, but the pupils who arrive at her dance classes are equally at sea. Ned (Stuart Devenie) is trying, not very well, to adjust to retirement; Coral (Bronwyn Bradley) wants a husband; friends Janet (Darien Takle) and Laura (Sylvia Rands) want a break from routine, while Bev (Quigan) and Ray (Cameron Rhodes) fill their days with volunteer work, community education courses and classes.

None of them can dance much - to stern Natasha's disappointment - except for Sebastian (David Aston) who has his own reasons for instigating the classes. Naturally, culture clashes abound - as does romance.

If the characters have to take a risk by signing up to dance classes, the actors have had to be equally willing to put in the hours learning nine folk dances, including the French Musette Waltz, the Russian Korobushka and the Israeli Chulu.

"The dances are an awakening for the characters who want to try something different," says Quigan. "Though they start off not being very good, the play charts their progress and the changes in their lives during the course of a year so by the end, we all have to be pretty good."

She acknowledges the dancing has been a fantastic way to get fit and, like the characters, learn new skills.

In fact, it's been so enjoyable Quigan reckons if time allows she wouldn't mind tripping the light fantastic a little more often.

Performance
What:
A Shortcut to Happiness
Where & when: SkyCity Theatre, to June 30; Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, July 5-7; then touring the upper North Island

- NZ Herald

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