Theatre Review: On the Upside Down of the World, Auckland Town Hall

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Laurel Devenie's comic timing and tone are great. Photo / Supplied
Laurel Devenie's comic timing and tone are great. Photo / Supplied

This effective and moving new one-woman play by Arthur Meek seems at first to be simple, linear storytelling based on the diaries of the wife of New Zealand's first Chief Justice, Mary Ann Martin, who emigrated in 1841.

But by the end it's an angry, sad reminder that "the colonialists didn't know any better" is a false defence for the Crown's appalling treatment of Maori.

There is little drama when young Mary Ann first turns up; her merry temperament is well suited to rough-and-ready life, happily avoiding the cliche of the reluctant pioneering wife. While she symbolically takes off her elaborate Victorian garb, she's taking off a cage she was never enamoured of anyway. Her episodic adventures are leavened by witty, playful phrases: she says of the Irish washerwoman engaged as cook that "her only culinary experience is boiling sheets".

But ultimately a woman who won't let her beloved, informally adopted Maori boy into her drawing room, and talks patronisingly (if warmly) of the natives' "eager upturned faces", is still able to see Crown-Maori relations as horrifically unjust.

The mighty Auckland Theatre Company production design is rather overwhelming for a chatty piece best suited to an intimate space. Tony Rabbit's monumental forest of metal ladders is set on sand within the dazzling white confines of the stage - lighting turns them imprisoning or freeing by turn - and we hear John Gibson's rhythmical water, cutlery and tea-stirring sounds as appropriate.

But Laurel Devenie is not about to be swallowed up. Directed by Colin McColl, she carries the entire piece effortlessly, giving Mary Ann both intelligence and an open, cheerful face. Her comic timing and tone are great, and her cries of heartbreak are all the more touching because they're not overdone.

More complex than it first pretends to be, Upside Down deserves to be popular for years to come.

On the Upside Down of the World will be playing at the Concert Chamber at Auckland Town Hall until July 16.

- NZ Herald

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