The Biggest

Written and directed by Jamie McCaskill

Somewhere up north, in a small coastal town, there’s a bunch of blokes who’ve been mates since they were kids. These days Stu (Tim Gordon), Pat (Peter Hambleton), and Poppa (Jim Moriarty) pass their time in the pub or out fishing. Mick (Apirana Taylor) has got a big business over in Aussie, but returns home for a month or so every year and has rejoined them.

Stu’s actually been out of commission after a serious road crash which destroyed his brand new, dream fishing boat after his first day on the water. After a long stint in hospital, he’s confined to a wheel chair and is just getting out of the house. His mates are excited he’ll be joining them at the pub, but when he shows up, they act as if he’s never been away. It’s darts, beer, does Stu’s diddle still work, and the big fishing competition coming up in a couple of weeks. Top prize is a state of the art fishing boat – and they are going to win it so Stu can have a new boat. Which means they have to beat Poppa’s daughter Cassie’s (Kali Kopae) partner, three-time winner Jan (Nick Dunbar). He’s not just got a fishing boat, he is a nasty twerp, full of bravado and insults and has a blinding hatred of Stu. As the big day approaches, long-kept secrets and fading dreams are revealed.

Writer/director Jamie McCaskill intended to write a comedy about some of the people he’d met in small towns in New Zealand, but as the play evolved it became a drama with large doses of brilliant comedy in the mix. The realities of ageing; women (!!!); what it means to be Maori, Pakeha or mixed; who is and isn’t whanau – all wind their way into a day of fishing or a night at the pub. While some stories end, others take a new turn or find a fresh start. So what might seem like an innocent slice of rural Kiwi life takes on many layers of meaning.

The seasoned cast is simply superb, each of them delving into the depths of their character’s souls and coming up with subtleties and nuances that bring them to life. Kudos to Nick Dunbar for conveying Jan’s underlying vulnerability. You know that guy – the one who tries too hard, tells offensive jokes and insults everyone, but can’t understand why no one likes him? That’s Jan. The other standout performance comes from Apirana Taylor as Mick, the one who made it. Successful and sophisticated (he’s on The Facebook!) he’s come to wonder what all that is worth as he has sold his soul and given up his Maori heritage.

Tony de Goldi’s simple set uses colour and a few key props to capture the NZ landscape, while the beautifully executed lighting design by Jennifer Lal brings you from the pub to the shore and even turns the stage into a gently rolling ocean.

A truly wonderful surprise, The Biggest takes an unexpected diversion from the usual Kiwi slice of life and lands a heart-warming but slightly unsettling look at who we really are.

The Biggest is part of The Auckland Arts Festival. It’s playing at Q Theatre from 9-19 March. You can buy tickets here.

Veronica McLaughlin