Reviews, News and Commentary

Rangitoto: a fascinating social history snapshot

Reviewed by Malcolm Calder

Harry Casey (Edward Richmond), Denise Snoad (Margaret Richmond), Geoff Snell (William Richmond), Elizabeth Tierney (Daphne Morris), Joseph Wycoff (Rex Morris), and Frank Taylor (Johnson Manukau)


Written and directed by Geoffrey Clendon

Turning Tide Theatre Company

Pumphouse Theatre, Takapuna, Until 5 March 2023

Artworks Theatre, Waiheke, 9 – 12 March

A Social History Snapshot

Rangitoto Island is the youngest of Auckland’s volcanoes, settling into its present form only about 800 years ago. Although featuring in some Maori mythology, this Gulf and harbour lookout appears to have never enjoyed early settlement largely because of its rocky and inhospitable landscape and absence of natural resources. In the years following WW1, it became an increasingly popular Auckland ‘weekend getaway’, accessed mainly by day-trippers using a range of yachts and small boats.

Permanent residents were minimal, but nearly 150 baches had been built by the mid-1930s, each on tiny packets of land leased from the then Devonport Borough Council which had declared the island a Domain in 1890. Built by families, using the scarce resources of the Depression era, these structures demonstrated the ‘kiwi-can-do’, DIY attitudes of the times. Water was gathered from roofs, elaborate and unusual arrangements were devised for storing food and cooking was usually done outside over open fires. Fishing was virtually the only local food source and watersports and tramping were the prime leisure activities. There were of course no motor vehicles at all but communal facilities such as paths, a swimming pool, community hall and tennis courts had appeared.

In doing so, Rangitoto had grown its own sense of community. In fact ‘community’ as we understand the word today, was something of an understatement for the Rangitoto lifestyle of the period. Everyone knew everyone, social traditions and patterns had become established and an ‘over-at-the-bach’ lifestyle had become firmly established. It was a very small and tightly focussed community.

However, as the Great Depression reached its peak, Rangitoto’s baches were also starting to become popular amongst those who were doing well and even benefitting some from the economic malaise. The island had been ‘discovered’. But the baches and the very community they generated were also becoming more and more difficult to sustain for those suffering from the Depression and who were not doing so well. Even with an annual leasehold of only £5/year.

This is the background to Geoffrey Clendon’s new play Rangitoto, a snapshot of a part of Auckland’s social heritage and the first of a trilogy of plays he plans. All set in the Gulf. In 1932.

The drama arises out of the inevitable clash between the customs, traditions and outlooks of those who were largely developing this unique island community and those of moneyed newcomers who did not necessarily share them.

In this play the Morris family have built and maintained a bach of their own over many years and are spending Christmas and New Year there together with a family friend who now lives in Hamilton. They interact with a former British actor, still suffering WW1 anguish, who lives as an irascible hermit on the island. But their efforts to relax and celebrate in time-honoured fashion are interrupted by two unexpected intrusions.

Father Rex (played with some assuredness, especially when becoming emotional) by Joseph Wycoff reveals that he has lost his job and that it may no longer be possible to retain the family bach. His wife Daphne (Elizabeth Tierney, an excellent casting) shares his concerns although both also care about the future of their 18-year-old daughter Lucy, played with a delightful sense of maturing adolescence by Isla Sangl.

Their already tense holiday idyll however, is further interrupted by the arrival of the Richmonds who are keen to introduce some new ideas to the island. To modernise things. To develop them. And to change them.

Geoff Snell (an excellent William) dithers and flaps about and tries to accommodate everyone and everything without losing sight of his ultimate goals. One of those is his recently acquired ‘gold-digger’ wife Margaret (Denise Snoad – a comic figure until she goes off the deep end after too much champers) and the other is his eminently two-dimensional son Edward (Harry Casey) who fruitlessly pursues Lucy but looks gorgeous as a French Lieutenant.

Offsetting them all, and playing the role of catalyst, is the hermit Clive (Joseph Rye) riven with what we would today call PTSD. His is a great opportunity to display extreme acting talents. And Rye certainly has those.

I’m not at all sure what Dave (Johnson Manukau) is doing in the play in the first place but he provides some deliciously discordant harmonica and generates occasional tension with Edward as both compete for Lucy’s attentions.

On balance, Rangitoto is a fascinating social history snapshot. The language and lifestyle of the 1930s are extremely well captured and Mr Clendon’s words even managed to make me wince a couple of times early in the play.  But I quickly realised these were coming out of the mouths of characters born back in the 1870s or 80s and, in that respect, Mr Clendon has done very well indeed.

Rangitoto captures the heartache and deprivations behind life on the island. And it points to the future of beachside real estate in New Zealand in the years ahead. Indeed, it provides a great opportunity for a dramatic play that pits one concept (tradition) against its antithesis (development), until reaching eventual resolution. Especially, in Rangitoto’s case, as that eventual resolution saw no more baches built after 1937 and even saw some demolished. The remaining 30 or so were eventually recognised as part of New Zealand’s built heritage by Unesco many years later.

Mr Clendon’s dialogue is both period-specific and impeccable and is unquestionably important. I haven’t heard the word ‘shickered’ used for a very, very long time – and delighted in it. However, as a director he has chosen to focus on the conflict only implicitly and to highlight the comic elements of his play instead. These comedic interactions overrun the potential opportunities for capitalising on the conflict that his context so generously provides. Hence painting with a broad brush and providing comparisons with that conflict over beachside real estate in bigger picture is missing. That is a pity.

As a social snapshot however, Rangitoto is great.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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