Taniwha Below: A Review of Looking at Stuff in Clouds

Shoshanna McCallum and Donna Brookbanks have returned their two-hander to the Basement Theatre. Madeleine de Young navigates the light and the dark.

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Four years after it's first season, Shoshanna McCallum and Donna Brookbanks have returned their two-hander Looking at Stuff in Clouds to the Basement Theatre. Madeleine de Young navigates the light and the dark.

"What's a taniwha?" 11 year-old Tama asks his koro. And what starts off as a good yarn spun by his koro becomes an intellectual interrogation as Tama probes him with tricky questions delivered via an improbably eloquent vocabulary. The question - is a taniwha a literal or figurative being - sets the scene for Looking at Stuff in Clouds. Are our demons those that we can touch, or those inside our minds?

Created by Donna Brookbanks (Snort, Funny Girls) and Shoshanna McCallum (Step-Dave, West Side, Animals), Looking At Stuff In Clouds is a series of swift and hilarious vignettes exploring the inane absurdity of day-to-day life in small town New Zealand. This is the show’s second Basement season (the first was in 2013) and it’s well-tuned. The characters are those we expect to encounter in a small New Zealand community, and the interactions between them are at once intimate and absurd. McCallum and Brookbanks play larger than life caricatures, with broad key-we accents, spouting gossip left, right and centre.

The whole production is pared back which allows for the characters and their relationships to hold our focus. Following on from Koro and Tama we meet two farmers, chewing some serious fat under the guise of pointing out the stuff in clouds. Then there’s two teenage girls excited for the ball and trying to eke out every cent they can from their parents. There’s two city slickers gone to find some fresh air in the country, a teacher downing a beer with his former student, and some older ladies gossiping and ogling their spin instructor. For the most part, each scene is a two-hander, with McCallum and Brookbanks slipping into the skin of each character with the change of a handbag, hat or cellphone. The clouds line the ceiling of the theatre; puffy chicken wire contraptions with lighting concealed inside.

While each scene is largely self-contained, together they build a world that is seemingly trivial. Small talk dominates the dialogue and like many small towns, everyone knows about everyone else. However beneath the triviality lies a dark morass of conflict, broken relationships, loneliness, and boredom. These taniwha haunt the town and yet are scooted out of sight with a giggle, a grunt, or a "she’ll be right".

But in Looking at Stuff in Clouds, "she’ll be right" seems to be a facade for suppressed emotions and trauma. When the school teacher chops off his own thumb while teaching a class, the story is retold through the town as a good yarn, awful and scandalous, but not needing further interrogation. Yet Tama questions it. Always inquisitive, he turns up on his teacher’s front door step to ask why he chopped off his thumb on purpose. In doing so, he reveals the mishap to be a cry for help.

How would things be if we just, you know, talked about stuff?

Despite the underlying darkness, for the most part the show has the audience laughing. This comes to a bizarre climax in a scene where a candle meets a USB stick. The candle, shimmying with light, pontificates on the meaning of life while the USB derides the candle for being a superfluous relic of former times. The candle fights to remain positive but ultimately breaks, threatening to melt the USB. It’s utterly ridiculous; McCallum shimmies incessantly for the whole scene, contrasting Brookbanks' stiff USB impression. The audience are driven to laughter, yet once again the underlying ideas at play – fear of redundancy and the meaningless of life – are grim.

As an audience member and city dweller, Looking At Stuff In Clouds can feel voyeuristic, but perhaps that’s on purpose. The city slickers in town for the weekend are much like us; they’re observing the country with unfamiliar eyes, seeing it as pastoral and quaint, constantly capturing it for their Instagram without really seeing it. (And ‘we’ don’t get off lightly – these characters feel the most deliberately absurd). This highlights the fact that we’re in a constant act of observing; watching each others’ lives from afar, without stopping to consider or care for what they actually involve.

And so the taniwha gain power. In this town, it feels like everyone needs to have a cup of tea and a good cry; to stop and let it all out. Instead they bottle things up, everything is fine until it’s not, and then without stopping to let the dust settle, it’s back to pretending again.

Brookbanks and McCallum are hilarious storytellers, and while they’re known largely for their comedic work, Looking At Stuff In Clouds is more than a one-layer comedy. It’s a play that had me thinking about that fundamental flaw in our society - how would things be if we just, you know, talked about stuff?

Looking at Stuff in Clouds runs from Tuesday 25 July - Saturday 5 August at the Basement Theatre. Tickets available here.