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Arts Festival Review: Ship Songs

Arts Festival Review: Ship Songs

Review by Ali Little

ship songs. Photo:
John McDermott
Click to enlarge

Photo: John McDermott


Ship Songs
Auckland Theatre Company
Pacific Blue Festival Club, March 4–6, 8pm
Southward Car Museum, north of Paraparaumu, March 9, 7.30pm


Ship Songs tells three tales of the sea, the stories of three characters separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles, but all yearning for . . . something more. It has a very large cast. There are at least a hundred extras with speaking parts, from the old Scottish freighter captain through dusky Maori maidens, a dozen unsuccessful Yorkshire romeos and a squad of Canadian radio operators - all written and performed by New Zealand actor Ian Hughes.

Three bearded musicians - Don McGlashan (who also wrote the songs), Chris O’Connor and Dave Khan - create delicious soundscapes as well as music, variously playing drums, fiddle, guitar, typewriter, bronze gongs and what looked to be a vacuum cleaner pipe.

The show starts with an Irish seaman, James Ryan, unwillingly pressed into the British Navy 200 or so years ago, who jumps ship in New Zealand. This character acts as narrator, telling his own story, and those of two other explorers. The main story is that of Gabrielle, a young nurse leaving a settled life in Yorkshire for Canada on a freight ship in the 1960s. This is Hughes' mother's own story. The other tale is of Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who "discovered the whole world" in 1433 but was ultimately betrayed by his Emperor and largely forgotten by history.

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As well as narrating as Ryan, Hughes is every person mentioned in any of the stories. His ability to so clearly delineate so many characters of different ages, genders, social classes with a twist of accent and a few gestures is pretty darn impressive. Even more impressive is the sheer speed at which he does so as the distinct characters talk, emote, argue, and even fist-fight with each other.

The storytelling would have worked with Hughes on a bare stage, but the along with the great sound the show makes extravagant use of a projected backdrop. Hughes is set on fire, drenched, confined to a bed and cast adrift in storms as he interacts with the screen. Although full of clever little details, the images only enhance the storytelling, never overwhelming the live action.

This show looks and sounds great. Ship Songs energetically mixes humour and emotion and music and images for a perfectly entertaining evening.

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Press releases: RESTAGE to Support New Zealand Performance - New NZIAF Nightclub on the Wellington Waterfront - NZIAF 2010 Programme to the Wellington Region
Arts Festival website: http://www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz/theatre/ship-songs
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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