Ensemble Theatre, January 31


Photos: Prudence Upton.

This is rare: a play that has a beating heart as big as a hug from your mum, and yet is not even slightly mawkish. Even rarer, it has that heart, and yet is about the skull-splintering game of rugby union. Rarer still, it’s the most physical play I’ve seen.

Not only do the six actors share 62 characters (playing between eight and 16 each), they spend much of the play sprinting, leaping, tackling, colliding and lifting each other – when they’re not boisterously singing, cheering or performing the Haka.

And this is all on the Ensemble’s tiny stage, with the front-row patrons’ toes like so much fine china near a bull. The capacity for the cast to damage each other is frightening, and yet, such is their exceptional execution of the choreography devised by director Janine Watson and fight director Tim Dashwood, all the heavy physical contact remained illusory.

Tristan Black. Photos: Prudence Upton.

John Breen’s 1998 play celebrates the sole loss the mighty All Blacks suffered on a 1978 tour of the UK and Ireland, inflicted by Munster, a team of part-timers from the rugby-mad town of Limerick. It was a reason to drink to being Irish at a time when many drank to forget the fact.

The play is ingenious in its fluidity of action, especially between the match (depicted with no ball) and the character of Mary in labour. The actors must convey their constant changes of character by physicality and voice alone, while dressed as All Blacks in Act One and Munster in Act Two.

In Watson’s production the stage is covered in astroturf (presumably with spongy underlay), and four benches are used as everything from bleachers to a hospital bed to a secret door. The wonder is that one is never confused about who’s who, where a scene is set, or what’s happening – even when the actors become worms in the rugby field’s turf.

They – Tristan Black, Ray Chong Nee, Briallen Clarke, Skyler Ellis, Alex King and Anthony Taufa – won’t have to debate too much about whether they’ve been to work after each show, with King’s performance a particular joy. Often they are cast against type, which adds to the pathos and the humour. Oh, did I not mention it was funny? Yes, it’s at least as funny as it is heart-warming and even inspirational.

Until March 2.