Auckland Theatre Company, in association with Te Rēhia Theatre Company, could not have picked a more cheerful, life-affirming play for their contribution to this year's Auckland Arts Festival. In times like this, theatre is a perfect reminder of the joys of life and the good in everyone, and Albert Belz's Astroman wears those themes endearingly on its fluro-coloured sleeve.
Set in Whakatāne in the 1980s, Astroman tells the story of Jimmy Te Rehua who's a recent arrival to the small town struggling to find his place in the world. His one solace is the local video game arcade run by the cantankerous Mr McRae. When Jimmy ends up working there, initially as punishment, the two form a bond that resonates with the whole community.
The show rests primarily on Jimmy's young shoulders but the burden is more than borne by newcomer Levi Kereama. Kereama is still in high school but is already able to convey the emotion, energy and experience of a performer many years older.
His youth is exacerbated by the older cast but he holds his own against the likes of Miriama McDowell, as his exasperated but well-meaning mother Michelle, and Gavin Rutherford who shines as the "Scottish grizzly bear" Mr McRae and finds new depths and heart in the "reluctant tutor" stereotype.
Astroman oozes with references to the 1980s from Louise Davis' shining costumes to the brilliant soundtrack from Laughton Kora. But John Verryt's set may be the real star; the simple staging – a multi-purpose picnic table straddling the edges of the arcade – illuminated by video game-inspired graffiti that covers the back wall, surrounded a screen that dazzles thanks to Harley Campbell's impressive, era-reminiscent graphics. The two elements work in tandem to set the mood and bring the era to life in a wholly imaginative and innovative manner.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
The influences continue through the script. Astroman makes reference to plenty of 80s' movies, invoking many coming-of-age, family movies from that period. Yet in putting so much focus on these tributes (including a lengthy mash-up of Dragonz Lair and Eye of the Tiger), Astroman can struggle to build the right tone and story around the colourful splendour.
The show's darkest moment is shocking and powerful but is moved on without being mentioned again. Much of the plot focuses on the arcade, yet the climatic moments turn the attention back on Jimmy's family, highlighting how underdeveloped that part of this world is.
Yet, despite these second-act stumbles, Astroman never ceases to be delightful. Much of that comes from the committed and talented performers but credit goes to director Tainui Tukiwaho for bringing all these elements together and building a wonderful world that engulfs you with a full-on charm offensive.
Funny and charming, sweet and sombre, Astroman largely strikes the right chord and results in a welcome tribute to small town endurance and a more optimistic time of life.
Where: Rangatira at Q Theatre, until Wednesday, April 9
Reviewed by: Ethan Sills