It's always strange walking into a quiet theatre. While you want silence during the play itself, the hubbub and discourse before it begins is part of the joy of the experience, feeling the buzz in the air that lingers after the lights dim and the curtain raises.
Yet Grand Horizons, the latest work from the Auckland Theatre Company, benefits early on from the silence of Covid restrictions. The play opens on retired couple Bill and Nancy (Roy Billing and Annie Whittle) preparing dinner in dead silence, the 1 News weather droning in the background. The silence holds the barely full theatre in its grasp, the tension and expectation building for minutes before Nancy turns to Bill and calmly requests a divorce over the potatoes.
It draws the first big laugh and rarely lets up from there. On paper, Grand Horizons seems like the company's bread and butter, but the 2020 script by American playwright Bess Wohl is a perfect fit for a new era for the ATC. New creative director Jonathan Bielski has selected a modern choice for his debut in the roles that reach across generations and revitalises the family drama, golden oldies story ATC has done before.
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The story sees Bill and Nancy's children, Ben and Brian (Kevin Keys and Todd Emerson), move into their parents retirement village unit to try to talk sense into them as they work out why their 50-year marriage is about to collapse. As they try to force their parents to confront their feelings, small revelations unfold from all sides of the family as the incident forces them all to take stock.
Wohl's script is fantastic, peppering plenty of quips and comedic traits among the slowly unravelling backstory that fits perfectly into a New Zealand setting. Director Jennifer Ward-Lealand has wonderfully guided this adaptation and has drawn the most out of the actors. Billing and Whittle are among some of our best performers and they are on fire here, perfectly encompassing the pains and joys of a half-century marriage that's never been truly open with itself.
Keys and Beatriz Romilly as his pregnant, therapist wife Jess had excellent chemistry that serves as a counter to the silent acceptance between Bill and Nancy. Family storylines like this often can descend into melodrama and forced revelations to push the story along, but Wohl's script brilliantly fleshes out the characters and their dynamics very simply and lets everything develop naturally.
The only character who felt out of step with the rest was Brian. The play's main gay character, he is described frequently as "sensitive" and reacts the worst to the divorce in a very one-note way. Emerson's performance livens the material, and he clashes brilliantly with Esaú Mora, who features briefly as an ill-fated hook-up, but their interaction ultimately has no consequence on the storyline and can't fully rise out of the stereotypes of Wohl's writing.
It's the only dim spot on otherwise flawless production. It's a very small-scale story but the strength of the acting keeps you hooked throughout. Even the spacious, eloquently designed set by Tracy Grant Lord looked good enough to live in, a brilliant showcase of the scale ATC is able to work at even when the stories are this straightforward.
By picking something so straightforward but effective, ATC has delivered its best production in years. A simple but poignant story full of laughs and heart, Grand Horizons is the perfect escape from our Omicron-filled world.
What: Grand Horizons.
Where: Auckland Waterfront Theatre, until March 5.