After a pandemic-forced break, Auckland Theatre Company's Here and Now festival is back. An annual celebration of young theatre-makers, the festival is now a teenager itself, with two new shows to celebrate its 13th year.
And after several years at the ATC's waterfront base, this year sees the festival moved to the Basement Theatre – a more fitting choice for the small-scale productions, the intimate main theatre the perfect size and space for the young talent to thrive in.
First up on a Saturday night was Fleshies 2.0, described by creators The Oddballs as being "born out of a desire" to showcase different body types on stage and provide a different perspective to mainstream body politics. It's an admirable goal, but in this chaotic sketch show, little of that shines through. Instead, we had an 11-strong ensemble-moving through recurring and one-off sketches that touch on themes around body, gender norms and self-acceptance, but a lack of a through-line or clarity means any message gets lost among the noise
Fleshies tries to give each cast member a moment to shine, but only a few are able to stand out. The clear highlight was a monologue by Isobel Christie comparing spines to pine trees, that was the perfect blend of movement and reflection that incorporated the whole cast well. Those poignant scenes were a rarity though, with most feeling like scripted theatresports.
To the cast's credit, they were clearly all having the time of their lives on stage, and their joyous energy was infectious throughout the show. There were plenty of funny moments and sharp jokes, but a lot of the scenes ended up just unhinged noise that didn't showcase anything more than a buzz. It feels like there's always one show like this at every Here and Now festival, and they always come across as a very earnest attempt at having fun and saying something at the same time, but none have succeeded yet.
The second offering this year is Yang/Young, and puts a fresh spin on teenage romances with a Chinese, queer perspective. The play follows Poppy and Qui Ju, family friends who have grown apart at high school. Queen Bee Poppy sees her social standing affected after her long-time boyfriend dumps her, while Qui Ju grapples with her feelings for another girl and how to negotiate the relationship while staying in the closet.
The combination of the script by Nuanzhi Zheng and Sherry Zhang and director Nathan Joe have led to a true delight, one that captures the Gen Z-teenage voice without feeling inauthentic, and is able to follow a more traditional structure while still incorporating fantasy moments and social media motifs.
The talented cast was also wonderfully suited to its characters – particularly Kate Stedman and Shelby Kua as the leads, while Tasman Clark and Danny Lam were standouts, selling the more ridiculous parts of the play with utter commitment.
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The Chinese perspective of growing up in New Zealand is one not often touched upon, and Yang/Young succeeds in reframing traditional plot points through a more diverse lens. A distinctly Kiwi sense of humour helped lift a number of moments, and the climax was a nice change of pace from your usual YA story, even if it needed more build-up earlier in the play to make the relationships feel more realistic.
While both works were vastly different, they do once again highlight the huge amount of young talent in New Zealand – and after a year away, let's hope festivals like Here and Now can carry on supporting this talent in all their creative endeavours.
What: Here and Now Festival
Where: Basement Theatre until July 30