An adaptation of a 1993 novel by a French philosopher may not seem like your usual New Zealand production, but the origins of Essays in Love is just one of its many pleasant surprise. Alain de Botton's book has been adapted by local writers/theatre makers Eli Kent and Oliver Driver who maintain the setting but give things a Kiwi twist.
Given that so much of our pedigree theatre comes from imported scripts, it is a welcome surprise that a home-grown project – one that debuted in Whangārei of all places – has the craftsmanship and talent to make it a world-class production.
Leon Wadham stars as Otto, a charming but flustered Briton who, particularly given the 90s setting, gives off a very early-career Hugh Grant vibe. The show was meant to be about his relationship with his beloved Chloe, only they've recently broken up. Left with only a voicemail message from her, Otto has decided the show must go on, despite clearly being on the verge of a breakdown.
Left without a co-star, Otto has to rely on multiple members of the audience to fill in the role of Chloe, a device that marks it out as a local show, though thankfully, for once it was not an insufferable gimmick. The audience participation proves crucial to driving home Otto's state of mind and feeble grasp on his own story, and Wadham handles the members of the public as seamlessly as though he'd rehearsed with them.
Given it is mostly a one-man show, Wadham is the true anchor and he handles all aspects of his role – an endless stream of thought, adjusting the set mid-speech, a one-sided sex scene – with the skill and composure of a true talent. Under the typically careful eye of directors Driver and Sam Snedden, Wadham takes Otto from goofy beginnings to heartbreaking endings, and it's a captivating journey.
It's rare to see a show where every aspect of it works so seamlessly in sync with one another. Ella Mizrahi's simplistic set – a giant pink love heart, replastered together by Otto, hanging in front of a roll of brown paper – is illuminated with by Lauren Farrell's innovative graphic designs. The sound and lightning, by Leon Radojkovic and Zane Allen respectively, are key to setting the mood of the sparse stage, and both make such a small, simple play feel huge and exciting.
The story may not be particularly fresh or thrilling but in the hands of Wadham, Kent, Driver and Snedden, Essays in Love feels like a must-see show on the level of its international counterparts, and is easily the best Basement show I have seen in years.
What: Essays in Love
Where & when: The Basement, until Saturday.
Reviewer: Ethan Sills