ONstage: Valerie – intensely intimate: like breathing in a secret. (Theatre review)

There’s a buzzing in my head. It won’t go away. PHOTO: Supplied.

There’s a buzzing in my head. It won’t go away. PHOTO: Supplied.

ANNABEL WILSON muses on cabaret show Valerie: the latest installment from Last Tapes – the creatives behind “theatre that gives a shit”.
On Suffrage Day (the anniversary of the day women in New Zealand won the right to vote), I went to see Valerie – a show centred around a strong, resilient woman and the impact she has on her descendants. The connection seemed apt. In fact the piece is all about connections, links, chains of causality – the echoes and reverbs of traits passed down between generations of “a case study: a family”.  Posited as “a love letter from grandson to grandmother”, Valerie is an intensely intimate piece of ‘gig theatre’ by Robin Kelly, with music by himself, Cherie Moore and Tom Broome; directed by Benjamin Henson. Following its premiere in Auckland last year, the show is now in its second iteration. This tour sees a brief season in Christchurch before heading to the Kokomai Festival in the Wairarapa and the Nelson arts festival.
Within the work, music; molecular biology and spoken word combine to ravel family history,  exploring questions
“… about genetics, what’s passed on. What isn’t.” To what extent does science pre-determine who we are? What allows a trait to pass over an individual, so they don’t inherit a “devastation that lurks”? With scintillating crafting, the trio examine the stories carried by Valerie through love, marriage, mental illness, letting go, and holding on. The result is  an arresting, deeply moving cabaret. The layered voices of the present and past are both haunting and hopeful. Herstory merges with ‘history’, medicine with mythologies. Valerie’s (fractured) narrative is told mostly chronologically, by singer Cherie Moore with Kelly on keys and Broome on percussion. Each musician contributes their voice and body to various fragments of her tale. A karanga-like first song delves into memory and sets an emotive tone. Moore’s soaring evocation urges the listener to “Call your mother / just don’t make a sound”, supported by a dense, driving soundtrack. Kelly steps out from behind the keyboard and takes to the mic, introducing the threads of personal experience, anecdote and med-speak to the piece: “I’m starting to think about genetics”. As the show continues, Moore garlands his neck with coiled amp cords, physically weighing him down with the loops and cycles of this story. This is a deceptively simple way to show how we carry our history – it is “spun dangerously” in our DNA and RNA. (For an explanation of the difference between the two, you really need to hear Kelly’s monologue definition here).
The story begins in Melbourne “at a house in Ivanhoe”, when Kelly’s grandmother Valerie falls in love with Graeme. It travels to a farm with the ironic name of Kismet, then eventually to New Zealand. With “the needle getting ever closer to the centre”, the pair’s intertwining is punctuated with phases of great pathos as elements of addiction and instability infect their lives. I was glad I had glimpsed the not-very-obvious trigger warning notice on my way in, because some of the show’s moments hinge around the darkest aspects in the human condition. Schizophrenia, suicide, self-harm: “the many ways to tear yourself apart”.
In the exposition, Kelly’s family tree is drawn in indelible marker on Broome’s back, which is perhaps an allusion to the body and inscription. Moore points out key people across four generations with a drumstick as Kelly explains their characteristics and diagnoses; the legacy of mental illness that latched directly on to some of Valerie’s family, missing others, though it affected them all. As the story affects the audience.
The design of the piece is deliciously deft. Tonally black, white and blue, the look of the show bares a stark sophistication. The cast are clad in black pants and tops, musical equipment and technology become symbolic props. Riffing on the long links that connect the past to the present, a ream of 1980s perforated computer printer paper is read from throughout the show. The black marks on the white page are again a metaphor for inscription: of genetic diseases and patterns repeated. As Kelly explains, “Nature loads the gun but nurture pulls the trigger.”
Valerie is an edgy, genre-bending show: insistent and resonant theatre in situ. Introducing the powerfully moving song, White Knuckle Tree, Kelly says Valerie is “for all of the incredible women who hold on for all of us.” The show left me with the feeling of an inhalation, a held breath. I felt it in my shoulders, my chest. Like when Kelly describes the sense of slight intrusion at walking into his grandmother’s room, “there’s something too intimate / like you’re breathing in something secret”. Motifs and messages swirl and recur in the music, staying with me long after leaving Christchurch’s Orange Studio. “Call your mother… raise an army … hold on … breathe with me.”
 The company make themselves available in the bar afterwards but there’s scope for a more formal post-show korero. Valerie is one heck of a story, spun with grace and humanity. Debrief definitely needed – whether it’s with the cast and crew, your darling or your grandmother.

Last Tapes Theatre: Valerie

Orange Studios, 3/1063 Ferry Rd, Woolston, Christchurch

Wednesday 20 September 2017 7:00pm – 8:45pm


Carterton Events Centre, Holloway St, Carterton, Wairarapa

Friday 13 October 2017 6:30pm – 7:35pm 

Part of Kokomai Creative Festival 2017


Founders Heritage Park, 87 Atawhai Dr, Nelson, Nelson / Tasman

Thursday 19 October 2017 7:30pm – 8:35pm

For ON-the-ball previews, promotion, advertising, interviews, reviews and photography for your cool happenings and concepts, contact annabel@onmag.co.nz.

ONmag – FacebookTwitter & Instagram.

Leave a Reply

Connect with Facebook

— required *

— required *