Winding Up, Waterfront Theatre, 13 February 2020: Theatre Review

Winding Up is a light-hearted take on the reality of getting older. What happens when we know our time is nearly up? Playwright Sir Roger Hall takes us on an intimate journey with Gen and Barry for the world premiere of Winding Up, launching The Auckland Theatre Company’s 2020 Season.

As the stage lights come up in the wonderful Waterfront Theatre, 70-something Gen is in the comfortable, modern lounge of their luxury apartment with a magnificent view of Rangitoto. She’s on the phone with a travel insurance company, arguing about the cost of coverage for their upcoming Baltic Cruise. With all their pre-existing conditions, insurance is almost three times the cost of the cruise. Barry wanders in and takes a tumble. He picks himself up, and while he’s brushing himself off, Gen nags him to get more exercise, look after himself better. He bristles, but agrees to practice getting out of his chair without using his hands.

Their daughter rings, looking for a babysitter. Barry wants a Japanese toilet, which costs over $4000 – but it does everything, including dry his bum when he’s finished his business. Gen says they can’t afford it, not after getting his $6000 Bluetooth enabled hearing aids, which he won’t even use. They lounge on the balcony, sipping their latest arrival from The Wine Society, a selection of “classy whites,” planning their cruise itinerary and looking forward to seeing their son Philip, who moved to London, remarried and has two young sons they’ve never met. An old friend’s husband dies suddenly and they attend the funeral, which Barry declares was crap. He thinks he’ll plan his own when the time comes. Something fun.

Ordinary events in the life of a comfortably retired couple in their seventies. They’re still in love, in the way two people who’ve been together for fifty years are in love. It’s not about sex – that has become a rarity (and all too often a comedy of blunders). It’s about the natural intimacy of knowing every little thing about the other person. And while there’s a bit of good-natured nagging, it’s about acceptance and comfort and the sheer pleasure of a good life together.

Until Barry gets bad news from his doctor. Looking on the bright side, one third of people recover with treatment. On the dark side, perhaps they should cancel the cruise. Perhaps it’s time to plan for the end. Or perhaps – it’s time to keep on living – fight the demons, quibble over clutter and go on the damned cruise.

Sir Roger Hall‘s brilliant play drops us into the ordinary lives of two ordinary people, dealing with ordinary problems in an ordinary way. His dialogue is so natural and artless, it’s less like being in a theatre and more like overhearing your parents or grandparents conversation (but a lot funnier). If you’re a boomer (like me) you might wonder if maybe he put a bug in your lounge and recorded your conversations with your spouse. I swear there were several times Barry and Gen’s script was lifted from my life. I busted a gut when she tried to convince him to get rid of his t-shirts – and he refuses – attached to every last one – I’ve had precisely that argument with not one, but two husbands. (Spoiler alert – the husband always wins that one!)

But it’s the exquisite performances from its two cast members that bring Winding Up to life. Kiwi legends Mark Hadlow and Alison Quigan each bring more than forty years of theatre, film and television experience to their roles. They’ve worked together numerous times over the years, right from their days in drama school. They play Barry and Gen with such understated, natural energy, creating a deep sense of intimacy with each other and the audience, they transcend the theatre. Every moment they are on stage it’s like watching people we know going about their lives.

Mark Hadlow is instantly recognisable from his roles in numerous NZ-made TV shows, movies and commercials. Though slightly younger than Barry, he embodies his ageing character. He is also remarkably fit – taking numerous pratfalls as Barry struggles with his sense of balance. His sense of comic-timing is spot on – he is that lovable old coot, that grandfather or great uncle who could always make you laugh.

Alison Quigan is utterly charming as Gen, the mother, the matriarch, the one everyone turns to for advice. She’s a bit bossy, a bit too practical, but with a warmth and generosity of spirit, rooted in her love of life and deep sense of purpose. She also manages a remarkable number of costume changes – indeed, the passage of time in the play is marked by her latest outfit, each one something one might find at Farmers or Millers Fashion Club, comfortable, nice and new, but no fashion statement. (Kudos to costume designer Debbie Thearle for her wonderful ‘ordinary’ choices.)

Director Colin McColl takes a very light hand with Winding Up. One can’t help but feel his trust in his actors, allowing them to inhabit their roles. There’s not a moment that feels artificial or false. I sensed he was more collaborator than director, and the result is a play that feels like home, full of heart and soul, whimsy and woe, a place to put your feet up.

Winding Up by Roger Hall directed by Colin McColl

Winding Up is playing at Auckland’s Waterfront Theatre until 8 March. For information, show times and ticket sales, go HERE.

Following its Auckland run, the play will hit the road, touring to Hastings, Hamilton, New Plymouth and Tauranga. For dates and ticket information go HERE.

~Veronica McLaughlin