Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Love letters a perfect 40th birthday gift to historic Takapuna playhouse

Sue and Max Golding are performing Love Letters as part of  the Pumphouse Theatre's 40th anniversary celebrations. Photo /  Nick Reed
Sue and Max Golding are performing Love Letters as part of the Pumphouse Theatre's 40th anniversary celebrations. Photo / Nick Reed

Back in 1977, Max and Sue Golding were preparing for one of the most significant nights of their lives.

It wasn't their marriage or the birth of a child; instead, it was the Mairangi Players 25th anniversary production at what was then a new theatre on the North Shore: the PumpHouse in Takapuna.

Max, now in his 70s, played a peasant in the Greek tragedy Electra and had the honour of speaking the first line while Sue, just a couple of years younger, took the title role.

"It was quite something to speak the first words from the stage of a new theatre," Max recalls, adding that there were no seats in the auditorium.

"That's right," says Sue, "the audience had to bring cushions and sit on the risers. There had to be more fundraising for the seats. There was fundraising for everything!"

She recalls a caravan was parked outside so female cast members had somewhere to change. The men used a former engine room full of old and dirty machinery and home to an opossum likely to relieve itself on people's clothing.

So much for showbiz glitz and glamour.

But the PumpHouse is now a thriving community arts centre complete with dressing rooms and theatre seating. After many performances there, the Goldings once again returned to mark a milestone in the historic theatre's history.

The PumpHouse turns 40 this year and plans to do so in style with a VIP cocktail party, community open day and an evening showcase featuring the many local theatre organisations - both grassroots and professional - that have benefited from the building.

Leading up to next weekend's events, Sue and Max have the honour of starting the celebrations. They'll perform a play especially written for two, Love Letters by A R Gurney, who was a finalist for a Pulitzer prize.

It seems an appropriate play to mark a significant anniversary given it's about a couple, who are only briefly together, reading correspondence they have exchanged during nearly 50 years. Through notes, cards and letters, they discuss their hopes, dreams and disappointments, victories and defeats - the types of memories that seem to whisper from walls of historic buildings, like the PumpHouse.

Max and Sue Golding say they are amazed the PumpHouse Theatre is still going strong after 40 years. Photo / Nick Reed
Max and Sue Golding say they are amazed the PumpHouse Theatre is still going strong after 40 years. Photo / Nick Reed

Built in 1905, the brick and timber building was originally a water pumping station supplying Lake Pupuke water to North Shore's early settlers. It was decommissioned in the 1940s, falling into disrepair, but from the 1960s onwards, the community lobbied to have the building restored. Plucky local residents saved it from demolition; the theatre opened in 1977 and, in 1983, it received protection from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

The range of shows staged there is staggering: the premiere of a transgender musical, i-Start Chinese Theatre's regular productions of locally-written works in Mandarin Chinese and a re-telling of local Maori stories by local students while many young drama fans have been introduced to theatre through Tim Bray Productions for children.

It's even claimed the PumpHouse has its own ghost. Peg Escott, a writer, poet and playwright who was a driving force in saving the old building, died in 1977 and it is believed her presence still lingers in the theatre.

For Max and Sue, it's a testament to the power of community.

"It's pretty amazing that it's still going strong because there are a lot of places that don't keep going."

•For information on the PumpHouse Theatre's 40th celebrations, see http://pumphouse.co.nz/

- NZ Herald

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