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Ray Henwood: Wales and Aotearoa meet on Stage

Ray Henwood: Wales and Aotearoa meet on Stage

Howard Davis

The son of a Welsh publican, Henwood was born in Swansea in 1937. He was in his twenties when he saw an ad in The Times Educational Supplement for a science and mathematics teacher at Mana College in Porirua and what was originally intended as a temporary adventure turned into a five-year teaching stint.


Ray Henwood

Henwood quickly established himself as one of the leading members of Wellington’s theatrical community. Although there had been plenty of talented amateur dramatic productions in the past, there was no professional theatre in Wellington when Henwood first became involved in the Downstage Theatre in 1964. But by 1976, such was the demand for high quality stage drama, that he and his wife (High Court Judge Carolyn) felt Wellington could support a second theatre. With the help of a small group of enthusiasts, they opened a hundred-seat theatre on Harris St., which eventually evolved into the Circa Theatre.

In 1981, Henwood achieved further prominence playing David Bliss in the Downstage Theatre production of Noel Coward’s 'Hay Fever,' but his first taste of national fame came from a TV ad he did for Moro Bars. It was his role as John in the TV sitcom 'Gliding On,' however, that made him a household name. Roger Hall's incisive scripts satirized a paper-pushing working life familiar to many Kiwis by depicting four staff members at a government supply office. There were only two television channels in the 80s and outside Wellington many viewers thought 'Gliding On' was a documentary. In an age before Rogernomics, and well before 'The Office,' there was the afternoon tea fund, Golden Kiwi, and four o'clock closing. It was the first locally-made TV show to become a bona fide classic, winning multiple awards including Best Comedy, Best Drama, and Best Direction at the Feltex Awards.

Henwood subsequently had television roles in 'Close To Home', 'Shortland St.' and 'The Legend of William Tell,' which lasted for sixteen episodes in 1998. He enjoyed film cameos in 'The End of Golden Weather' (1991) and 'Heavenly Creatures (1994), and 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug' (2013). In 2001, he won the Chapmann Tripp Best Actor Award and has performed in 'All The World's A Stage,' 'Rutherford,' 'Copenhagen,' 'Waiting for Godot,' and 'Playing Burton,' which toured Australia in 2003. He's also an experienced director, most recently directing Alan Bennett's 'The Lady in the Van' for Circa.

In 2014, 'Short Poppies' (a mockumentary TV series starring and written by Rhys Darby and co-directed by Jermaine Clement) followed entertainment reporter David Farrier as he interviewed "extraordinary" New Zealanders in a small town known as 'The Bay.' Henwood played Brian Ledbetter, the constantly harried and hen-pecked husband of Mary (a member of the Hillside Hat Collectors Club and President of the Ladywalkers, who's also a compulsive whiner, gossip, and bigot).

Given this extraordinary track record and ability to cover such range of roles, Ray Henwood is indisputably New Zealand theatre royalty. He's obviously invested not only a lot of thought and preparation, but also plenty of personal childhood emotions into his current readings from Dylan Thomas' BBC radio plays at the Circa Theatre. Their titles alone ('Reminiscences,' 'Return Journey,' 'A Child's Christmas in Wales') suggest a nostalgic vision of lost innocence, mixed with sweetly sentimental memories of a bygone era and suffused with the glow of a Proustian melancholy for "all things past." There's more than enough humor in Thomas' quirky characterizations of various uncles and aunts to leaven the more cloying aspects of his Christmas card fantasy-world.

It's a shame, therefore, that Henwood's recital is so fussy. Rather than letting the musical quality of Thomas' lilting prose emerge intact, it's diminished by distracting sound effects and an overly-mannered, twitchy physical 'performance.' Henwood's timing is impeccable and his voice has retained enough rich Welsh sonority to evoke this highly-romanticized perspective on the past without such theatrical gimmicks. If he cut back on the number of awkward, jerky movements and allowed himself to sit a little longer in the front parlor of the house on Cwmdonkin Drive, letting Thomas' words work their own magic on his rapt audience, then this could become a charming and enchanting production.

A Child's Christmas in Wales (and other memories of childhood) runs at Circa Theatre until the 20th December. Tickets are available at: http://www.circa.co.nz/site/Shows/A-Child's-Christmas-in-Wales

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