It started with a pumpkin.

Playwright David Mamea's mum was talking to one; by day, putting it out in the sun and, at night, taking it inside. His wife, Christina, declared his mother was looking for something to love so they should get her some feathered friends.

There's a one-person play in that, she told him after they dropped the chickens off, but Mamea wasn't sure — even when she came up with the title Still Life With Chickens. He'd written for TV and film; his previous plays — the best known are probably Goodbye My Feleni and Kingswood — were for larger casts and he'd never written something from his own mother's life.

Then, one day, an idea dropped into his head and Mamea could see a way to write such a script; that it could be inspired by, rather than based on, his family's experience. Would it seem forced if the elderly woman was talking to the chicken she found in her garden?


He pondered this as he fed his chickens — around 18 and counting — at his Whangarei home and realised he was talking to them (it is purely coincidence, he says, that since the kids left home and he and Christina moved north that their menagerie has grown).

So, Mamea decided Still Life With Chickens had wings. He was further convinced when it won, last year, the Adam NZ Play Award and the Playmarket Best Play by a Pasifika Playwright. Yet more confirmation came after the script was workshopped by Auckland Theatre Company.

"It's all very well to put words into actors' mouths but it's not until an actor says them aloud that it becomes real," he says. "I like working with actors because I will have something in my head, but they will take that line in a certain direction and make it sound better than I ever imagined."

Directed by Fasitua Amosa, Still Life With Chickens is about Mama (Goretti Chadwick), who strikes up a grudging friendship with a rogue chicken and relays to it her struggles with her old man, her palagi daughter-in-law, her immigrant neighbours and the grandchildren she rarely sees.

It's not comedy, says Mamea, but a poignant play which asks us consider things like loneliness, friendship, community and the things that make life worth living. Chadwick doesn't mind that she's playing an 80-year-old woman.

There is, she says, no such thing as a typical elderly person and relates stories about her elderly parents, very sprightly in their seventies, coming to stay. One night, out later than she was, they arrived home and she could hear them whispering about whether to turn the light on and risk waking her up.

Chadwick is enjoying the challenge of keeping the show moving along when the only other cast member's lines involve variations on squawking. Award-winning set and costumer designer John Parker has crafted a "chicken" controlled by rising Pasifika actor Haanz Faavae-Jackson.

Last seen in the kiwi Pasifika comedy film Hibiscus and Ruthless, Faavae-Jackson has a family connection to chickens which means this role won't ruffle his feathers. He spent three years living with his nana in Niue where chickens freely roamed their village. Faavae-Jackson says he knows not to get too close; chickens can be tough.


Does Chadwick have any experience with chickens that may be useful?

"I know that they're yum!"

What: Still Life With Chickens
Where & when: Mangere Arts Centre — Nga Tohu o Uenuku, March 8-14; ASB Cube, ASB Waterfront Theatre, March 17-24; Centrepoint Theatre, Palmerston North: 7-15 April; Circa Theatre, Wellington: May 8-June 2