Kate De Goldi is one of New Zealand’s most loved authors, popular with both adults and children. Quirky humour, playfulness and intergenerational love are at the heart of this adaptation of her 2012 novel, The ACB with Honora Lee.A charming exploration of kindness, patience and acceptance, it follows the relationship between young Perry and her eccentric Gran, Honora Lee, who’s losing her memory.
As more and more words slip from Gran’s grasp, Perry furiously gathers them up, turning them into an illustrated and disorderly alphabet book, which becomes a gift of love to her grandmother.
This is director Jane Waddell's delicate but unpretentious interpretation of Kate De Goldi's short novel of inter-generational love and acceptance. It's the story of Perry (Lauren Gibson), a young precocious ‘only child’ who's well-meaning helicopter parents, Mum (Amy Tarleton), an over-bearing psychologist,- and Dad (Nick Dunbar), a typical corporate worker bee, are too focussed on professional solutions for teaching their child and raising her skill standards, not realising that the best opportunities lay right under their nose. Like many of us, they dismiss elderly parents as cantankerous and superfluous. So they’re somewhat surprised when Perry insists on spending time with her gran (Ginette MacDonald) instead of taking tennis lessons. Gran, aka Honora Lee, an ex-teacher and private tutor is becoming utterly eccentric as her mid breaks down. But to Perry, this is an education unlike none other. Honora holds fast to her 'old school' tools like 'rote-learning' and quick phrases - ''I' before 'e', except after 'c' or 'pie' in 'piece'. MacDonald, best known to the outside world as ‘Lyn of Tawa’, is superb as the grumpy, disorderly Honora, and utterly believable, too. She dollops her empathy subtly, avoiding the heavy handed trowel. A relationship, which seems all too one sided, ensues between Gran and Perry, who scrambles to scoop up words, like dead bees, and capture them in a book of illustrations before Honora loses them forever. "What's 'A' for?", Perry asks. " 'A' is for 'Anything!' ",Honora replies, illustrating De Goldi's love of words. Throughout the play, this gentle humour emerges and bubbles to the surface.
Peppered throughout the show are an ecleptic cast of quirky elderlies, care workers and naive, playful children all masterfully played by Tarleton, Amas, Dunbar and Simon Leary alongside their supporting roles but the other, unmentioned, cast member is the set. This is a honey-coned scaffold that sits at the back of the stage, coming to life as a projection and shadow screen at various intervals. As Perry works her way through the curation of an eccentric alphabet book, each of her illustrations are animated on the screen, along with an appropriate sound track of child's doodling noises. This is the most delightful aspect of the show, as it creates a sort of gentle, light mood, even in moments of death and heart break - a common theme in a rest home. De Goldi's treatment of the subject of Alzheimer's is refreshingly uplifting as she juxtapositions it with the life cycle of bees, four weeks - about the same time setting as the story in the play - and hints at the similarities between their society and ours. I'm not entirely convinced this mechanism works, and it was probably lost on some of the younger members of the audience, who may have just been contented with the notion of making a personalised book for a relative. None the less, Waddell has successes in keeping the story simple and the layers clean. In many 'adult plays' there is a tendency to break into metaphor to convey the many emotions that swell up when faced with death and departure. MacDonald does this brilliantly when she realises through her befuddled state that her friend has 'passed on' and won't be coming back from the hospital wing. She calls out to her. "Don't bother coming back. I ate all the icing off you piece of birthday cake!" It's but one of the clever moments, that disguise emotions like grief behind bravery and mischief, in this tender honeycomb of a play that will appeal to both adults and bright young tweeners. And it deals respectfully with its subjects but also maintains a level of rebelliousness against the politically correct establishment. It's a totally slick and comfortable Circa production made with all the usual care of a company that's been around a long time and really knows what they're doing but also a possible opening for children to experience theatre that's beyond their usual fodder of Wiggles and Puss'n'boots pantos. And that is reason enough to make the time to come along.
The ACB with Honora Lee - By Kate De Goldi, Adapted and Directed by Jane Waddell
Circa Theatre – Saturday 27 Feb – Saturday 26 Mar
For more info go to: http://www.festival.co.nz/2016/events/acb-honora-lee/