Given the 2017-2018 season at the Court so far, featuring the intensity of performances such as "Venus in Fur" and "Titus Andronicus", it may be surprising to see a show as grounded as "The Biggest" concluding the theatrical year. Written by Jamie McCaskill and directed by Ross Gumbley, this new and unmistakably kiwi play introduces us to Stu (played by Mark Hadlow). After a car accident he destroyed both his leg and the fishing boat that he sunk his life savings into, he returns for the first time in months to the local working men's club and reunites with Walter (Robert Lloyd), Mick (Apirana Taylor), and Pat (Phil Grieve). Pained by the sight of their friend in a wheelchair, and by their own fading youth and sense of unfulfillment, they vow to enter the town's annual fishing competition and win Stu a shiny new boat, despite heavy competition from the reigning champion Jan (Nick Dunbar) and the fact that none of them have gone fishing in years.
The opening moments of the performance did not exactly electrify the stage with energy, and the casual and unengaging banter of the characters initially suggested a lack of variety among them. They drink, they laugh, they complain. Gradually though, on the strength of the performances from the cast, the distinct qualities of the characters began to shine. Hadlow's Stu is tetchy and weighed down by guilt and self-pity, Grieve's Pat is reliable and loyal, Taylor's Mick is reserved but wise, and Lloyd's Walter is vivacious and outspoken. Their chemistry is often heartwarming, and their differences balance each other well.
The unexpected star of the show was Dunbar. Playing an egotistical arse dating Walter's daughter Cassie (Juanita Hepi), he was delightfully villainous from the first moment he entered the stage. The twist of compassion in character arc was hugely satisfying. Hepi herself was also strong in the role of a woman surrounded by men whom she both admires and rejects, in order to gain a sense of freedom and individuality.
The one thing they all have in common is just how down-to-earth they are. McCaskill's play is a passionate love letter to small-town New Zealand, clearly playing tribute to his days working as a fisherman and to his youth in Thames. It will certainly resonate with anyone who grew up in those surroundings, but at the same time, the play does not lose sight of the less scenic aspects of rural life, with Cassie pointing out the archaic attitudes towards technology, sexuality, women, and race. Race, in particular, is a theme that McCaskill and Gumbley obviously wanted to explore with this play, focusing on Māori and Pākehā relations. The commentary gives weight though it rarely dives below the surfaces of the issues it discusses.
The story itself is not bursting with surprises. It follows the underdog narrative closely and loyally, making for a predictable but enjoyable play. The script isn't quite as witty as it aspires to be either, and the direction does not always do it favours (I found the slapstick scene featuring Jan, Stu and his wheelchair was overdrawn and cringe-inducing, though it proved popular with the audience). Even so,what it lacks in humour it makes up for in heart.
The only aspect I was unimpressed by was the design. The costumes were homely and reflective of the nature of each character, but the set was rather sparse and dull to look at. The lighting gave a sense of setting that the set sadly neglects, and the minimal adjustments to the set intended to change location were not in the least convincing or clever (an unsubtle addition of a bird cage does not a living room make). This has a visible impact on the direction as well - there was too little set to interact with and an obvious desire to prevent the stage from becoming stagnant, thus Gumbley overcompensates with an unnatural amount of movement that took me out of the moment.
"The Biggest" delivers what it promises, and will undoubtedly connect with a lot of its audience. It might not be the most memorable piece of theatre you see this year, but with lovable characters and heartfelt performances, it is a good time for anyone who chooses to catch a performance. Three stars.
P.S. This is off-topic, but unsurprisingly most of the audience I saw the performance with were over the age of 50, except for a group of young people in the back row, who I would guess were the Court's Youth Theatre. There was a great deal of tittering whenever a character cursed or made a crass joke and a great deal of glaring in response. Personally, I thought it was fantastic that they were seeing the show and enjoying it as much as they were. Giggle on, young thespians. Don't let them get you down.