The Book Club

The Book Club
By Roger Hall. Directed by Nadia Tass. Lawler Theatre, Southbank. July 23 - August 28, 2016

About fifteen minutes into this play/one woman show by New Zealand’s Roger Hall,  you realise that two remarkably talented women are performing magic – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; something seemingly impossible. Amanda Muggleton and Nadia Tass might even be Siamese twins, so closely and seamlessly connected are they. They have taken a script which is little more than a collection of old gags and shtick, worthy of a Ray Cooney play, and turned it into a theatrical piece full of whimsy and poignant moments.

Muggleton’s middle aged Deborah, caught in the rut of a passionless marriage and turning to a book club for stimulation, could be every woman of a certain age – and certainly much of the text is generic and cliched. Yet Muggleton’s skills….with both comedy and drama …coupled with Tass’s finesse and understanding of character …have turned this lightweight offering (Menopause the Musical…sans music) into something insightful and touching, as well as very funny.

Muggleton plays all the characters in the club, plus her own husband Wally and lover Michael. She swaps accents and even holds conversations with herself in two different voices and never trips up. You can tell where Tass and her star have updated the text and added new business; the play has been reduced by an hour from its previous incarnation, and much material has been replaced. Their contributions are cleverer, more sophisticated, and funnier than the original. There’s even a baby that looks for all the world like Barnaby Joyce, poor child.

Ms Tass is a skilled director. Her blocking is perfection, along with her use of the one room set. She uses a library ladder to accent the importance of various books, or place her actress above the audience…then moves it to frame her star’s animated face. She introduces Deborah to the audience from behind the couch, rather than on it, and she knows when a turn upstage denotes mood and character, rather than just movement. It’s all beautifully timed, and largely un-noticed, as good direction should be. Shaun Gurton’s set perfectly captures Deborah’s life, and there’s not a single piece of set dressing, nor a prop, which isn’t in keeping with character and story….right down to the books on the library shelves. Richard Dinnen’s lighting is atmospheric and uses the transitions well, pinpointing focus on the actress when emphasis is needed, changing mood and ambiance, but always for a reason.

But it is Ms Muggleton’s night, and she is a master craftsman with an exceptional box of acting tools. We know from her marvellous Shirley Valentine that Amanda never lets inhibitions get in the way of performance. She’s not naked this time round, but the raunchy simulated sex scene makes us believe that she is and has us howling.

This probably won’t be the ideal theatrical experience for men, too many female jokes, but they’re played for truth and there’s no pretension of any kind. I’m reminded of a current joke about abbreviating the classic plays, in which Becket’s Waiting for Godot is abbreviated to “Act 1, Sc 1… Godot enters”! The Msses Tass and Muggleton know that the keyword is entertainment, but the E word doesn’t have to mean crass and worthless. They’ve found the truth, the emotion, dying of starvation behind the gags, and they’ve treated it with respect. The play transfers to London after this run and Lord knows the Brits need a laugh after Brexit. Fingers crossed it slays audiences there as it’s bound to do here.

Coral Drouyn

Photographer: Casey Wong

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