It's nothing new for a show to perform in a slightly unconventional setting. From restaurants to bars to basements, you can shake up the traditional format of theatre without even stepping outside the building. There aren't many productions that can say their show performed over multiple stages, however. "The Christmas Detention Centre", a devised work by theatre company Chapel Perilous, can proudly boast that it performs over both The Heyday Dome and The Propeller Stage in Wellington's BATS Theatre. The audience is split between them, and swap over in the interval. Essentially the show is performed twice, with each half filling in blanks left by the other.
The story itself is fairly loose, without a strong narrative to hold it together. That is not necessarily a bad thing, as the show is far more character driven than story driven. A group of college students, all with the worst records of getting detention, are brought together by a rehabilitation programme to work as a team to put on a Christmas show (with a little Wellington history stirred in). Said play within a play, entitled "The River of Tears", is performed on the Heydey Dome, while the Propeller stage is turned into the green room where the real drama unfolds. From that premise, it does sound an awful lot like "The Breakfast Club: Christmas Special", and there are certainly elements of that, but there are seeds of plot sewn in, as controversy sparks when an illicit relationship is discovered, and another, more wholesome, one begins to blossom. The characters are modern updates on old tropes; Julian the activist (Jake Brown), Jana the influencer (Ashleigh Williams), Louis B the lover (Logan Cole), Gabby the head girl (Hannah Kelly) and Harrison the black sheep (Tom Clarke).
Troupes they may be, but they are so affectionately devised and performed that you can't help but love them, and understand the conflicts and bonds between them. It is difficult to single out any of them as they all gave really strong and almost nostalgic performances, but Brown's anxious and angsty Julian totally won the audience's heart, especially in the final moments when he rejoices at having scored a kiss with his crush. Each character is given time to make you laugh and make you sigh, and it is certainly easy for anyone, particularly young people, to draw comparisons to similar characters in our own lives. That said, their being brought together does seem a little tenuous. Their reasons for getting detention are briefly explained (lack of attendance, lack of focus, failing to graduate from college for several years), but seeing their interactions they don't come off as naughty school children. Actually, seeing their warm up techniques one could mistake them for a rather professional drama club. Though I was glad to see such variety of personalities, the set up comes off as trying a little too hard to create flawed characters instead of allowing their flaws to come across naturally.
I would usually allow a little creative license in this regards, given the tone of a fun 80s/90s teen movie where realism does not necessarily apply, but the tone is a little inconsistent across each half of the performance. "The River of Tears" performance in particular struggles, as the performers and director Stella Reid can't seem to decide on either creating a realistically shoddy college performance (with cheap powerpoint presentation, dodgy blocking and misbehaving ensembles whispering over heart-wrenching monologues) and a glamorised but funny series of mishaps (disorganisation leading to on-stage counselling, an unplanned assault of slam poetry, and a final triumphant dance bringing a brother and sister back together). It is a pity because individually these tones could have worked well, but trying to make both work meant I did not have a lot to grasp hold of tonally.
One of the unavoidable limitations of this set up is that one segment, namely the one back stage, is doing the heavy lifting as far as far as story is concerned. That is where the emotions are, and perhaps it was intended that much of the humour is meant to be "up on stage" causing chaos as teenagers try to tell a tragic story of the Tangiwai Disaster (when a bridge collapsed underneath a passenger train on Christmas Eve 1953), but without seeing it alongside the plot points of the backstage story the humour does not hit home quite as effectively as it should.
I saw the backstage performance after the interval, so perhaps I would have found it funnier had I seen it the other way around, though I have my doubts. Even so, resting on the performances and creativity of that half alone it still made for an entertaining, ticket-worthy evening. Three stars.