Theatre review: Sham, Basement Theatre

Annie Whittle. File photo / NZ Herald
Annie Whittle. File photo / NZ Herald

Lord, but it's good to see Annie Whittle ham the hell out of a bombastic role. As Dame Neva Faris - a magnificent monster of a grand opera singer - she's the femme formidable pivot of this comedic family feud.

Fully-rigged as a pseudo-Spanish galleon, with beauty spot, "naice" accent and artfully-arranged shawl, she sails in and - in a perfect summation of suburban smothering - pronounces her estranged sister's ordinary house to be claustrophobic, "like drowning in a bowl of pumpkin soup".

Jess Sayer (who won Playmarket's Bruce Mason award for an outstanding emerging playwright last year) has written an all-female four-hander dinner party to explore just how easy it is to needle detested family members, even if you haven't seen them for decades.

Growing up together means you know their pet peeves, so Neva annoys her sister Meryl (played suitably nervous but defiant by Michele Hine) by calling her "midget". But, of course, they also know your peeves; Meryl serves dinner to the grandiose Neva on mismatched plates.

The play relies on four archetypes: supportive wife/partner, mother, ambitious bitch and clueless ingenue. But refreshingly, it easily passes both the Bechdel test - women talk face-to-face about something other than a man - and what might be called the Renee test (after the New Zealand playwright) that no woman is on stage because of her relationship to a man. It's wonderful to see three solid roles for women over 50.

It's not perfect - the ending feels provisional - and, given the lack of one-liners at the beginning, the amusing ridiculousness of the starting mother-daughter scenario would perhaps be better drawn out if played with wry incredulity.

But the two extroverted characters in particular are surprising and enjoyable. Darien Takle as Neva's good-time-gal partner expertly matches Whittle in the OTT stakes. Like many characters who'd be exhausting to have around for dinner, they are fun to watch. And both the rapport and the irritations of their lifelong relationship are touchingly believable.

Theatre review

What: Sham

Where & when: Basement Theatre, Greys Ave to June 10.

- NZ Herald

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