Chairs! – Basement Theatre: November 14, 2023

CHAIRS! starts off like a long-lost episode of the The Twilight Zone, yet unfortunately doesn’t really know how to finish.

Directed by Jessica Bennett, at Basement Theatre 14-18 Nov

What did Rod Serling used to say to start that long-running TV show? “You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination.” That’s the land in which we are travelling here. Surreal, yet rooted in a logic. Of sight and sound, but thematically focussed on the mind (and mental health). But the focus here is just a little off.

Chairs!Every good drama needs a good dramatic premise to drive the show – ideally one that overturns expectations, and so demands answers. Like a good musical melody that we yearn to hear resolved, we (the audience) hanker for that dramatic question to be answered. Graham Greene began The Third Man with the idea of seeing in the street a man who’s just been buried. Hans Christian Anderson asks us if we would have the courage to admit to not seeing the Emperor’s New Clothes.

This one involves wheels. And it could be interesting. But the play’s premise is a fragile one and so, like an over-extended metaphor, it starts to break down. And we discover its less about resolving that plot question, as we’d traditionally expect, than it is about accepting the mental and emotional struggles of our protagonist.

Buy into that, and you can buy into the show.

Fortunately, our protagonist here is a star. Despite being anchored to a chair for an hour, Brigit Kelly is bright and engaging and utterly convincing in the character of Molly – the literal anchor of the drama while movement happens all around her. The best of those moving around is a delightful cameo by Danielle Nicholson, who plays two roles, appearing most colourfully as a 14-year-rapper who’s discovered music as a cure for the soul, and hip hop as a way to avoid life’s problems. And, like Hans Christian Anderson’s child, it’s this exuberant teenager who comes closest to understanding (or admitting) that this Emperor may also lack clothes.

Another star is the sound design. With the help of soundscapes from the offstage sound engineer, the ever-present Laika Roundtree engages in the story while spinning lines on the electric guitar that reinforce emotional points. I could have enjoyed more of this. Surreal dreamscapes too, shock as they should do, and help us understand Molly’s fears.

But the weakness, really, is the plot, or the lack of one. Events are episodic, rather than plot driven (a weakness of any play, like this one, without a writer) and we are left to find satisfaction (if we can) in loved ones emoting while ignoring a real problem, and delight in supporting characters who don’t listen, and who are too shallow to earn our affection.

The play has been here before, starting its second run here at the Basement. (It enjoyed a successful development season last year, being put together by the same young actors.) And we were happy to spend an hour in the theatre with them. Their play is trying to take on the major issue of mental health, but I fear with a story lacking genuine resolution and supporting parts with too little depth, it doesn’t allow itself to get there. And in not fully answering the dramatic question (most importantly, “how did this all come to be?”) it also fails to properly address whether understanding from others is as important as actually finding a way to heal.

The play wants to be an exploration of mental health issues, and of acceptance. But I wonder if instead it becomes a critique of evasion, a re-telling of the Emperor’s new clothes without the honest child at the end to expose the deception. I’m reminded here of the famous prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which does help folk heal:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, 

The courage to change the things I can, 

And wisdom to know the difference.”

The lesson the prayer offers is that the full trinity of wisdom, acceptance and courage are needed for one struggling with these issues – wisdom, in this context, to identify that there is something that can be changed, and the courage then to begin to change it. I’m still resisting giving you a major spoiler here, but Molly was crying out for an injection of reality from her friends to allow her (and themselves!) to take a stand. Or to do that herself. But when she needed it, it wasn’t there.

I for one found that disappointing. For her, and for the audience.

Theatre Peter

CHAIRS! runs at Auckland’s Basement Theatre from Nov 14 to 18.

 Interview here.

 Tickets here.