Dionne Christian talks to playwright Roger Hall about the inspiration for his work now on stage in Auckland.

A couple of years ago, playwright Roger Hall well and truly put the "grand" into grandparenting.

You Can Always Hand Them Back, a musical he co-wrote with British songwriter and 1970s pop singer Peter Skellern, was playing in Colchester so Hall arranged for a family trip back to the motherland. He and wife Dianne joined their daughter, Pip, and their granddaughter and grandson for the sojourn.

"I wanted them [Billie and Tamai, then aged 11 and 10] to see London," he says.

They went on a Harry Potter Warner Bros studio tour, rode the underground - "they loved that, working out from the maps where they were going" - and generally experienced the sights and sounds of (arguably) the world's greatest city.


"The kids just soaked up the experience and they grew in confidence, which is what travelling does. We took our kids out of school for a year to travel; it gets me annoyed when schools frown on that because it will 'affect the child's education'. Yes, it does affect their education - by making it better."

After a successful season in Colchester, and in various New Zealand centres, Auckland Theatre Company brings You Can Always Hand Them Back to town to celebrate Hall's 40 years as a playwright.

It's four decades since Glide Time was programmed by Wellington's Circa Theatre and went on to change Hall's fortunes - and New Zealand theatre - forever.

He is frequently credited with being the writer who made seeing a "New Zealand play" popular; Hall likes to joke that once if a local play was staged it almost had to have "New Zealand play" written on it like some sort of Government health warning.

Actors Peter Hayden and Darien Takle play grandparents Maurice and Kath in the latest ATC production.
Actors Peter Hayden and Darien Takle play grandparents Maurice and Kath in the latest ATC production.

"Does it feel like 40 years? Yes and no; it seems to have gone quickly but I have covered a lot of ground," he says. "I still find it strange and wonderful that I've been able to do what I do and I really have had a wonderful life.

"I was lucky that, at first, I had 9-5 jobs that allowed me to come home at a reasonable hour, to help with the children and then to write. People used to look down on the 9-5 job, but I bet there are many people who wish they had one now and they weren't working the hours it seems people have to today. You know, the thing I can't believe is how people have allowed their leisure time to be hijacked by work."

Rather than re-visit Glide Time, perhaps by re-imagining how it might possibly look in today's overworked world, ATC opted for You Can Always Hand Them Back. Janice Finn, working on her sixth Hall play, directs Darien Takle and Peter Hayden, who play grandparents Kath and Maurice, and pianist/narrator Jason Te Mete.

Hall, 77, acknowledges You Can Always Hand Them Back was inspired by looking after his grandchildren (he now has five) but he called friends together and asked "tell me about your grandkids?"

The characters of the grandchildren, never seen in the musical, are an amalgam of all these stories, which is probably just as well, because one of the fictional kids is referred to as "a bit of a wuss".

The story ranges from the babysitting stage, when you spend your time being quiet and listening to the monitor, to when Grandma and Pa have to stay in the grandkids' home for a couple of weeks at a stretch. Yes, Hall's also done that and describes it as a good deal more stressful than an overnighter or afternoon visit.

"Well, the thing is they aren't your children, so there's the extra responsibility and you're dropping them off at school and trying to get them to eat and sleep at night."

No one has estimated how many have seen his plays - they're regularly staged around New Zealand, regularly in Australia and sometimes in Great Britain - but he says in Dunedin alone some 100,000 tickets have been sold to one or other of his plays, musicals and pantomimes.

What: You Can Always Hand Them Back
Where and when: SkyCity Theatre, until April 16.