By FRANCIS TILL






Roger Hall's new work, Spreading Out, is an unexpectedly luxurious vehicle. Fans of New Zealand's most prolific and popular playwright will find this evening a bit like discovering a silk lining inside a favourite cotton shirt.



All the devices that audiences treasure about Hall's comedies are here: the light hand, the memorable one-liners and characters drawn in ruefully humorous, deeply familiar caricature. Because it is ostensibly a sequel to a much earlier work, Middle Age Spread, which played to packed houses last season, even the core characters in the work are likely to be known to audiences. But there is something much deeper at work here than is usually the case, an extraordinarily graceful and profoundly moving examination of advancing age that transcends the vehicle in which it is set.



It is a testament to Hall's maturity as a writer, and to Anthony Taylor's deft direction, that this poignant core captures audiences like a quiet rip, takes them away for a startling view of the suddenly distant shore and then returns them, comfortably, to safer depths.

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Paul Barrett's Colin and Ray Henwood's Reg are brilliantly at the centre of the work and own a critically important scene that deals with discovery, death and absolution, not your usual Roger Hall fare. That scene alone rates with anything put on stage by anyone, ever. But all that comes before in a leisurely lead-up, turns out to have been essential to it and all that flows on after is charged with its sweetness and pain.



Elizabeth McRae (Colin's wife Elizabeth) provides a marvellous study in energetic vexation and Christine Bartlett (Reg's wife Isobel) turns in a strong study in the ravages of co-dependency, its cost, inflexible hold and hidden truth.



Two generations of disappointing children are sketched more quickly, and with less charity, by Hall's pen, to what is, ultimately, perfect effect and well realised by Alison Bruce, Laura Hill and Jeff Gane.



Ross Joblin's panoramic set quite naturally fills the vast stage at the SkyCity Theatre, no easy task, and Andrew Malmo's intelligent lighting provides essential intimacy and focus.