For nearly two decades, Massive Theatre has collaborated on plays with British actor Lennie James. It may seem an odd pairing – a little company in New Zealand teaming up with James, of Walking Dead and Line of Duty fame – but their latest collaboration, Half of the Sky, shows their relationship is one we're lucky to have.
James, in collaboration with the cast, has written a script that feels distinctly unique to New Zealand, our culture and our sensibilities. Half of our Sky revolves around three sisters, born years apart but their birthdays all coincide on the same week. As Nyree, Ruihi and Marika reunite at their father's old house to celebrate their birthday weekend, a sombre tone hangs unspoken between them; Nyree is dying from cancer and this is expected to be her last birthday.
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It's a concept that could drown in grief and anguish but James' script is refreshingly funny, mining the secret history that exists between family members for all its comedic potential. His script finds a perfect balance between family reunion and family mourning, a welcome equilibrium sold by a powerful cast.
Billy T winner Kura Forrester dominates as Nyree, as she always does when she gets on stage. She is fast becoming a household name thanks to her comedic chops, but the way Forrester hides Nyree's suffering with a cheerful determination once again reiterates why she is one of our finest actors working today. Few could handle the dual emotions so perfectly and Forrester delivers a defining monologue on love that is one of the most serenely captivating stage performances I've seen all year.
Joining her are Awhina-Rose Henare Ashby, as middle sister Ruihi, and Grace Palmer, as "funny strange" youngest sister Marika. The two have a great double-act going thanks to their characters' opposite end personalities, best highlighted as they recall differently an accidental poisoning from their childhood. There is amazing chemistry between the three sisters, a naturalistic bond that completely sells their connection.
Max Palamo does wonders opposite Forrester as her love interest Iosefa, a gentle giant who injects tension into the reunion. He and Pat Tafa, as his nephew Fetu, provide welcome comic relief at times but despite their strong performances, their storyline is one of the play's few weak strands.
The other comes in the unseen-form of Nyree's daughter. She is mentioned frequently and the character proves key in the climax, making her lack of physical presence a baffling omission. I can only wonder how much stronger the story could have been if one of our countless talented young actors had been allowed to bring her to life.
There is little else to fault though in this assured, well-crafted production. The final scene felt like a tacked on, feel-good ending, but the preceding 90 minutes are a heart-warming examination of family, boosted by engaging performances and the most natural, life-affirming dialogue you'll hear delivered this year.
What: Half of the Sky
Where: Q Theatre, until October 26th