LOWDOWN
What: Auckland Arts Festival - Astroman
Where & when: Rangatira at Q Theatre, Saturday, March 16-Sunday, March 24

At 17, Levi Kereama is too young to remember and appreciate the joys of life in 1980s' New Zealand: no social media, waiting a whole week for the next episode of your favourite TV show (and being a month behind with Smash Hits magazine, sent "direct" from the UK), vinyl records and afternoons at the local dairy playing "spacies" and eating 20c lolly mixtures. And they were big enough to last the entire afternoon.

But Kereama may be starting to feel as if he's time-warped back to those kinder and more innocent days. He plays the lead in the retro comedy Astroman, by award-winning Māori playwright Albert Belz, who says he wrote it as a counter to all the trouble in the world today.

Belz told the Court Theatre in Christchurch that, as a child of the 1980s, he wanted to write a love-letter to the decade and Astroman was the result.

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"There was a real sense of optimism and confidence that anything was possible in the 80s: communism and apartheid were crumbling, the colours were getting brighter, the music bouncier, the action movies more explosive ... "

Astroman, a co-production between Auckland and Te Rēhia theatre companies, arrives for the city's annual arts festival having already achieved a rare feat. It was commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company but a New Zealand version opened on the same evening at the Court Theatre in Christchurch.

Auckland director Tainui Tukiwaho has insisted on creating an "80s' vibe" in rehearsals, playing hits from the decade and bringing in a genuine space invaders machine so Kereama and his young co-stars get used to playing them.

"After all, he's got to look like an expert," says Tukiwaho, noting that when asked to improvise playing spacies several of the young cast acted as if they were playing X-Box. "Some knew to stand up but had the controls in the wrong place. We older ones were like, 'that's not right'."

It might just be the one role where Kereama is actually encouraged to play games, watch the TV channels where hit 80s shows still play and take a fresh look at movies like The Karate Kid, which gets a special mention in Belz' script.

Yes, says Kereama, he now knows the "wax on, wax off" line from the movie and he's been musing on a world without mobile phones and social media but, when you get down to it, he doesn't reckon kids today are too different from their 80s' counterparts.

"The conversations are still the same; kids still joke and make fun of each other."

And there are still bullies and growing up to do - which is what Kereama's Astroman character, 14-year-old Hemi "Jimmy" Te Rehua, faces.

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Jimmy rules at the Whakatāne Astrocade Amusement Parlour thanks to his domination of the Pac-Man and Galaga high-score charts. Bright kid he may be, but that puts him on the outer with several of the local boys so Jimmy's mum (Miriama McDowell) and the grumpy owner of the Parlour (Gavin Rutherford) set out to teach him a few lessons about the game of life.

What Astroman cast and crew – at least, those old enough to remember – would bring back from the 1980s:

Playwright Albert Belz.
Playwright Albert Belz.

Albert Belz - Playwright

"The 80s were cool; it was a simpler time, also a more naive time but I'm glad we're growing up as a society and prefer the now. If I could bring back one thing, it would be Space Lego. Why? Because Space Lego … "

Miriama McDowell.
Miriama McDowell.

Miriama McDowell – actor

"I was a kid in the 1980s and everything was big. I had a vinyl jacket from New York and a Golden Bicycle which are the two things – sigh – that I would bring back."

Gavin Rutherford – actor
"Yes, I miss the 80s because I had an HMX500, a commodore 64, endless summer days at the beach and my first kiss in the sand dunes. What would I bring back? Snifters – and we all know why."

Nicola Kawana.
Nicola Kawana.

Nicola Kawana - actor

"I loved the clothes. It was the decade when I went from new wave to punk to vintage. The op shops were full of gems. Then there was the music. I got my first job in a music store; vinyl was the most popular way to consume music. I still have vinyl from then. In 1984, my friend Kelly Tamou and I won a signed Culture Club record from the TV show Shazam. We had collected the most signatures for a petition to get them to come to New Zealand. They never did. I love the fact our country stood up against apartheid in 1981, became nuclear free in 1984 and passed the homosexual law reform bill in 1986.

Tainui Tukiwaho - director
"I have only a vague memory of the 80s. Sometimes it merges with the 90s, which makes sense I suppose. I do remember being very young and loving the Atari that Dad brought home. Man, we were flash."