Sci-fi classic adapts superbly to stage

Roger Hall's daughter proves again that she inherited the playwriting talent.

Under the Mountain
Book by Maurice Gee, adapted by Pip Hall

Directed by Sara Brodie
Auckland Theatre Company
ASB Waterfront Theatre

The third go at dramatising Maurice Gee’s ever-popular book (after the film and TV series) has quite the best villains of the three – the shape-shifter lava worm aliens coming to life under Auckland’s maunga turn out to be creepily sinuous alien worms.

Known as the Wilberforces and speaking with a spookily fearsome hive-voice, they are truly chilling from the first moment they dance into sight – somewhere between malignant mangroves, zombies and snakes, pimped out in rockstar black leather.

Led by the superb Daniel Cooper, they add the crucial element to playwright Pip Hall’s adaptation of the children’s book in which ginger twins discover they are the chosen ones to save the world from aliens.

Hall has refreshed the play with up-to-date references sophisticated 12-year-old city kids would recognise and welcome. The twins, Rachel and Theo, squabble, show typical sibling rivalry and sometimes hang on to each other endearingly through exhausting adventures. She wants to save the world, one plastic bag at a time; he wants to be a geophysicist and can be a bit of a bore on facts.

Played by adults, Katrina George and Richie Grzyb, the twins are entirely believable and sweet. At the start of the second half, a surprising and sombre scene involving them saw people in the audience react sharply, only to issue sounds of relief within minutes – proof the actors had captured them.

In this version, the country kids are on holiday in Auckland, staying at Lake Pupuke with their city family. Auntie Noeline, played by Nicola Kawana and cousin Nicky (Kimo Houltham), add a strong sense of whanau to the action, including two waiata and several family hugs (the latter seemed closer to Sesame Street though as they all muttered “Mmmmmm,” which sounded mightily like “Nom, nom, nom” as they cuddled together).

The rellies add a comic element to the adventures as do a pair of delightful 19th-century Swedish twins, Simon Mead and Joseph Witkowski, who appear when Rachel and Theo are given magic weapons for killing off aliens. Johan and Lenart offer advice on how to use the glowing stones in a not-quite-Tweedledee-dum fashion. The weapons come from the scruffy Einstein-ish Mr Jones (Peter Hayden), an alien of a different kind, who reveals their fate as chosen ones and exhorts them to take action against the worm aliens.

A story that requires kayak trips across a lake, storms, attacks by sharks in the Waitemata Harbour, Rangitoto and Mount Eden, car chases and sliding through lava tunnels under the mountains needs a versatile set and Rachael Walker provided one that proved adept at turning from place to another.

It might have been nice to have an actual slide for the lava tunnels but that may have been too hard – and the choreography was so good that one believed the actors were in tunnels when they were in oddly shaped “rocks” being moved around by the Wilberfi (in stagehand roles).

The video and sound were particularly impressive, bringing the set to life and enhancing the spookiness.

Director Sara Brodie created a marvellous production, full of childish wonder but with seriously nasty villains, which I suspect will carry this play on to many performances. From start to end, her choreography of the actors (and dancers), the set, the sound and video, is superb.

The original works had darker moments (the twins’ mother had died, cousin Ricky is killed) and I’m sad to see those go because all good fairytales come from tragedy but this will appeal to family audiences.

The play is a tad long but a little editing of mawkish moments would help in future productions.

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