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Grand Horizons: A comedy about families or a group counselling session

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Brian (Todd Emerson), Bill (Roy Billing), Nancy (Annie Whittle), Ben (Keven Keys) Jess (Beatriz Romilly) Photo. Andı Crown

Grand Horizons by Bess Wohl

Auckland Theatre Company

ASB Waterfront Theatre

Until March 5

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Before Grand Horizons opens, we hear the strains of the Fred Astaire song


A fine romance with no kisses
A fine romance, my friend, this is
We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes

This is not going to be a sweet romantic comedy

Then we are watching Nancy and Bill in their Grand Horizons retirement home as they watch Dan presenting the weather on TV1. He is forecasting thunderstorms for Auckland and he’s not wrong. Within minutes Nancy has delivered a lightning bolt.

“I think I would like a divorce”

To which Bill replies

“Right”

This sets in train the upheaval and gradual dissolution of what was supposedly a 50-year picture-perfect marriage. For Nancy it is an opportunity to start a new phase in her life – have her own cheque account and to eat in a restaurant by herself. For Bill its bewilderment.

For their two grown-up sons and their daughter in law, it’s a devastating betrayal. Their notions about love, family and security are shaken. There is Ben, the wealthy lawyer, Brian the earnest drama teacher and Jess the well-intentioned couple’s counsellor who all have their own approaches and solutions – something is wrong they will fix it.

The play could have been written by Roger Hall with its setting in a middle class retirement home living room and  the instantly recognisable characters – the grumpy old man, the put-upon wife, the grown-up kids who aren’t sure about how they are supposed to be adult.

Roy Billing (Bill) and Annie Whittle (Nancy) Photo. Andı Crown

The children don’t what to hear them talk about sex at their age and the occasional revelations of infidelity while not all that dramatic for the audience are a  shock to the children, highlighting their own problems

Brian is a bit aggrieved that they didn’t get divorced earlier like normal people. “Adults cannot do what they want,” he says. “The defining feature of adulthood is that you never get to do what you want.”

The play has its serious side in exploring the problems facing all families with aging parents. Who is the child and who is the adult, who is the caretaker and who is the recipient in the family.

What holds the play together is the deft direction of Jennifer Ward-Lealand who has put together a  strong cast, and  developed well defined characters to create this particular family. She has followed  the dictum of Tolstoy that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So, we see the various family members with their strengths and their flaws and their different ways of loving. She also understands the power of the astute small acts, gestures and objects which helps build tension and comedy as the play unfolds. So we see Nancy salting and peppering Bill’s evening meal and she prepares a sandwich for him as he is about to leave the home for good.

Whittle plays Nancy with a fine sense of self possession and aplomb which suddenly turns to an authentic glee when  she extolls the pleasures of cunnilingus. Unlike all the others she is solidly in control of what she wants, what she does and what she thinks.

Roy Billing does an excellent job of Bill. A job of not doing much. He can stand, sit or sprawl with a dazed expression, a lost man who life has passed by. When he attempts to  realise his dream of being a stand-up comedian his performance is both endearing and forlorn.

Ben played by Keven Keys is the true  older son who feels  overburdened and overprotective which comes out as just being overbearing just managing to hold his rage and bossiness in check

Beatriz Romilly as Jess as the stereotypical counsellor can’t help but tell everyone that as a professional she knows best, resorting to her counsellor approach, trotting out predictable lines  and approaches such as  getting them to hold hands and tell each other what they want from the marriage. Romilly perfectly captures her earnestness in voice and manner.

Todd Emerson plays Brian a gay teacher who is working on a school production of The Crucible and to please all the children (and presumably the parents) he has created parts for two hundred children. This desire to satisfy people is in contrast to his failing to help his parents and his own precarious gay relationship where he trying to work out his own priorities.

The two additional cast members,  Andrea Kelland and Esau Mora provide some excellent foils to the tension in the other characters – Kelland as the animated unmarried older woman Carla and Mora as the untroubled exuberant gay lover.

One of the pleasures of this production is  the set designed by Tracey Grant-Lord. The clean white interior is an elegant setting for the perfect background to a disintegrating marriage as well as providing the opportunity for a real shock at the end of act I.

Because of Covid 19 the audience was restricted to one hundred people, distanced throughout the theatre. They may have been reduced in number but their responses were as energetic as if there had been a full house.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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