Red Leap Theatre’s production of Janet Frame’s debut novel, Owls Do Cry, immerses the audience deep in the heart of the author’s masterpiece, loses us in the words, the sounds, the terror, the loss, the sweet moments of pure bliss. It literally left me gasping.

As we entered the theatre, there were six figures frozen at the back of the stage – were they actors? A projection? Cardboard cutouts? But when the lights went down over the packed house, they sprung to life with a musical tribute to Waimaru, the fictional town where the Withers Family – Bob & Amy and their children Francie, Toby, Daphne and Chicks live.

Comfrey Sanders, photo by Andi Crown

But as we settle in for what might appear to be an evening of song and dance, Toby (Arlo Gibson) interrupts the proceedings and opens a trunk full of books, paperback copies of Owls Do Cry, which the cast and crew distribute to the audience. He orders us to smell the history! Feel the weight of the words! Hold it to our hearts and let it beat through us! Then throws off his proper, slightly posh intonations and informs us he’s just a guy from Kingsland.

Ross McCormick, photo by Andi Crown

And so we crawl into the belly of the book, not listening to Frame’s words, but experiencing them – the silver rain, the trash and treasure at the tip, the Garden of Remembrance. Microphones hang from the ceiling, part prop, part functional. Toby, who is epileptic, suffers a fit whenever he bangs his head into one, which happens often – much to his father’s shame. The mics cast curious shadows on the stage, like mice scurrying.

Owls Do Cry cast, photo by Andi Crown

The story follows the novel quite closely, each scene springing to life, the four Withers children, living on the edge of poverty in the wrong side of town with their hapless parents. But it’s not a proper story with a beginning, middle and end. Things happen. In life they happen, without context. Context comes later, after we’ve had time to reflect. Dad’s (Ross McCormick) ashamed that his son has fits. Francie hovers off the stage as she falls into the fire. Daphne (Comfrey Sanders), bathed in light, is subjected to electroshock therapy. It’s real. It’s now. It’s happening now – it’s visceral, and you’re holding your breath.

And I realise this is what Janet Frame was seeing in that magical brain as the words tumbled onto the page. At least, it’s what the incredibly gifted team behind this astonishing production envision was happening there. And what a team!

Julie Nolan, artistic director, photo by Andi Crown

Artistic Director Julie Nolan had originally commissioned a script, but as they went into production tossed it aside and instead formed a miraculous collaboration with director/choreographer Malia Johnston, sound designer Eden Mulholland, designer Penny Fitt, and audio-visual designer Owen McCarthy.

The cast, Ross McCormack, Margaret Mary Hollins, Ella Becroft, Hannah Lynch, Comfrey Sanders and Arlo Gibson each helped create defined their roles, expressing their own truth in their performances. The 13th Floor’s Liz Gunn interviewed Comfrey Sanders and Ross McCormack, well worth watching as they describe the process of fleshing out their roles. You can see it here.

The result is an extraordinarily brave, jaw-dropping performance that is simply faultless. There is not one wasted moment in the piece. It’s the best show I’ve seen this year. Go see it!

~ Veronica McLaughlin

Owls Do Cry is playing at the Q Theatre on Queens Street, Auckland through Saturday 2 November.
Tickets and showtimes available here: https://www.qtheatre.co.nz/owls-do-cry

Veronica McLaughlin