Some people may regard a comedy inspired by the death of a friend as morbid, but it's the kind of bold and unique idea Q Theatre's Matchbox season aims to shine a light on.

The annual programme, now in its sixth year, gives three boundary-pushing New Zealand artists the chance to develop their work and see it on stage. Anya Tate-Manning's My Best Dead Friend is the first of the three plays in the 2017 season.

The one-woman show is deeply personal for the 36-year-old. Describing it as more storytelling than theatre or stand-up, half the play takes place in 1998 in Dunedin, centred on a crazy night with her friends, while the other half focuses on the death of one of those friends 10 years later.

"The story in 1998 [is] about a night where we attempted to have a revolution in Dunedin. Success was not high," Tate-Manning laughs. "It was a failure that we never talked about, and it was deeply embarrassing, but I feel when my friend passed away it became significant."


The revolution, during her last year of high school, sees Tate-Manning and her friends fighting against what she calls the "dark heart" of Dunedin.

"There is a heavy, masculine rugby culture there that is quite dominant, and it was present in our everyday lives and we hated it. That's what we were trying to rail against. We were trying to overthrow the system and stick it to the man."

She says after her friend died, she wanted to make a show for her; one that tackles grief in a positive and uplifting manner. Tate-Manning and director Isobel MacKinnon decided they wanted to tell it through "the lens of joy".

"[We] decided it was really important that it was a joyful show for me as well as the audience. It's difficult to make it, because you have to sit inside a whole lot of memories, but to perform it is quite fun, actually. It's a lot easier to perform it than it is to make it."

Tate-Manning stresses that the show is funny and people can expect some big laughs, including from the music.

"One of the throughlines for me is the Backstreet Boys," she says. "I was the only one who liked them and I was not allowed to play it when with my friends. So that was my secret obsession. There is a whole section of the show devoted to them."

Comedy is where Tate-Manning spends much of her time and My Best Dead Friend marks the latest high-profile performance for the rising actress. She's done one-woman shows before, including the Star Wars inspired An Hour with Ackbar at last year's comedy festival, and this week she also stars in Puppet Fiction, a re-imagining of Pulp Fiction told entirely with puppets.

Tate-Manning's biggest role has been as Ngaire, the stressed-out stage manager in Hudson and Halls Live! She took over the role when the play premiered in Wellington last year, her performance earning her the Best Supporting Actress award at the capital's theatre awards.

Despite numerous nominations, it was the first acting award she had won.

"I would have secretly practised that speech since I was a child, but in the moment I got completely overwhelmed by nerves and I didn't say anything. I just said 'up your bum, cheers', which is from the show, and walked off the stage," she says.

"Luckily my partner (comedian James Nokise) was the host so he got up afterwards and made a speech. I think he even thanked people for me!"

While those ensemble shows can be challenging, Tate-Manning says solo work creates a particular fear.

"It's something more than just anxiety. It's a kind of deep fear of failure. For this show, I can acknowledge it, as I'm just playing myself. It's lovely to be able to acknowledge how you're feeling and then you can just get through it. Sometimes it's better not to," she laughs, once more finding the funny side in a dark place.

Theatre preview

• Reviewer: Ethan Sills

My Best Dead Friend is at Q Theatre, July 12-22.

• The Matchbox season runs until September.

Puppet Fiction is at the Basement Theatre, July 11-15.