Michele Amas' DIY comedy drama The Pink Hammer has been given a second life at Wellington's Circa Theatre. the flyer for The Pink Hammer Workshop invites us to “Join Maggie Taylor as she guides you through basic carpentry skills and chisels away at the stereotype that has kept women out of the tool box for so long,” but when four strangers turn up for their first lesson, they soon discover their tutor has disappeared - together with their pre-paid fees. No one is happy, least of all Maggie’s husband, for whom empowerment is something you plug into a wall socket. He knows nothing about the course and even less about GirlPower. Amas, who sadly expired from pancreatic cancer three years ago, created a commercially viable full-length drama that not only has a strong and engaging storyline, but also focusses on the hopes, fears, and other life issues of four female characters. She constructed an amusing and poignant story of a group of women trying to improve themselves and, in the process, establishing a sense of sisterhood in a world where the traditional alpha male sports a tool belt and is unashamed to be seen wearing a leather apron. As the play's publicity package playfully inquires - “Five unhappy people in a shed full of tools. What could possibly go wrong?”
Born in Dunedin, Amas moved to Wellington and gradated from the New Zealand Drama School in 1984. Best known for her work as an actor and Director in theatre, film and television, she nonetheless returned to school, studying for a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Victoria University and 2005 and winning the Adam Prize for her portfolio. Amas was also an accomplished poet - Daughter was selected for Best NZ Poems in 2005, and her collection After the Dance was both shortlisted for Montana NZ Book Awards in 2007 and nominated for the 2008 Prize in Modern Letters. Roger Hall called Amas' play “very funny” (high praise indeed from the master of domestic comedy), while Conrad Newport, director of the original Palmerston production in 2015, observes that “Michele has created a bloody good yarn told by delightful and lovable characters. This cheeky play has been seen all around the country so I am thrilled to present it for the first time in a Wellington professional theatre with an amazing cast in a sparkling new production." Newport also notes this is “a clever and affecting exploration about connection. How we as individuals - and as members of our apparently separate tribes - have a basic need to make social attachments in order to measure not only our present state of self, but to also hopefully create ongoing companionship.”
This is not entirely a straightforward feel-good comedy, although it does provide plenty of laughter and smiles along the way, and the second act underscores just how brief, random, and unfair life can be. The play's opening premise is that Woody’s wife Maggie has organised a woodworking course and four women turn up at his shed one evening to take it, but Maggie has done a runner and Woody knows nothing about the class. His immediate response is to throw them all out, but he’s out-numbered and out-gunned and it does not take long before they manage to cajole, wheedle, and blackmail him into agreeing to teach them some basic skills. The prototypically stoic Kiwi male Woody (Alex Greig), provides an engaging foil to the four women, all of whom have widely differing ideas about what exactly they want to achieve. Annabel (Bronwyn Turei), a well-dressed marriage guidance counsellor, needs a book-case; Louise (Anne Chamberlain), a nervy, middle-aged ex-nurse, fears losing her family home and wants to build a shed to which she can escape; Siobhan (Harriet Prebble), a drifting Irish migrant, simply sees the course as a way to get to know people; and Helen (Ginette McDonald), a semi-retired horse breeder and stud-farm owner, has a terminal illness. Having always been fiercely independent, she wants to make her own coffin.
There is an initial tendency towards stereotypical caricature, largely for comic purposes, but as the show progresses the characters all develop some degree of depth and the dialogue has plenty of pace and humour. Newport’s direction is impeccable and Daniel Williams' set design entirely functional, equipping Woody’s splendid shed with ceiling-beams, plenty of power tools, sawhorses, the obligatory fridge for cold beers, and a girlie-calendar that is bound to cause offence to some of the motley ensemble. The cast acquits itself admirably - Chamberlain overcomes her initial fragility, Turnei gives a passable interpretation of an empowered feminist, Prebble has no trouble playing a flirtatious young colleen, nor does McDonald need to delve too deeply into her bag of tricks to embody a grouchy 'woman of a certain age' whose gruff delivery of acerbic one-liners lift the whole production up a notch.
McDonald began her career as a dancer, training from the age of five in Russian classical ballet with the fearsome Galina Wassiliewa. She is now sixty-six and an Officer of the NZ Order of merit for services to entertainment. McDonald is an actor, producer, and most famously Lyn of Tawa, which she played opposite her daughter Kate McGill in Tom Scott's play Joan, written about his own mother. After the character's debut at the Downstage Theatre when McDonald was just sixteen, she was reincarnated in the 1970s for the daytime TV show God Day, and evolved into a vehicle for talking about serious issues in a comic vein, delivering more than a hint of hard-hitting social commentary in an amusing and accessible manner. Other TV shows followed, including directing episodes of Gliding On, Peppermint Twist, and The Fire Raiser. In a recent interview for The Dominion Post, McDonald once ran for the Wellington City Council and admits to being an “old leftie from way back,” in the words of Gerry Brownlee. The Trump era has certainly got her riled up - “When he was running for president I did all I could in my small semi-retired way to alert people to the danger he presented ... There's this pernicious, cheap plasticky kind of of fascism leaking through the world now at a great rate - certainly infecting New Zealand ... and it all leads back to Moscow. So when people ask what I do in my spare time, I say I'm an online activist!” There's nothing more empowering than a power tool for that.
The Pink Hammer runs at Wellington's Circa Theatre from September 7 to October 5.
Tues - Thurs 6.30 PM, Fri - Sat 8 PM, SUN 4 PM.
Tickets - $25 - $52 ($30 specials: Friday 6/9
and Sunday 8/9).