Following a provincial tour of the North Island, State Highway 48 arrives in Auckland for five long nights, but not before bringing the Bruce Mason Centre to a complete standstill for 30 minutes. Going up half an hour late is not terribly problematic, but on this particular occasion it was indicative of what was to come. If I had to choose one word to describe State Highway 48, it would be unimaginative, only because a horrific post-show acknowledgement by writer/composer Chris Williams leads me to understand it was not uninspired. The effects of depression can be devastating, and art can be a therapeutic process for those left in its wake, but to treat such a prevalent issue with such irreverence is not only irresponsible, it’s dangerous. The only thing worse than ignorance is misinformation.
The fact that Williams is a self-taught musician is painfully evident, as the cast navigate lyrics that stumble their way through music with no variation or dynamism. In an attempt at imbuing emotive content, when not singing exposition, characters say exactly what they’re thinking and feeling, eliminating any internal work for the actors, resulting in either forced or absent emotion. I hesitate to even call them lyrics. These are words being forced against their will. They’re not songs. They’re hostage situations. Oh, and there’s no dialogue. The entire show is sung.
Dave is middle-aged, overworked, and drinks too much. And holy shit there’s a creepy man in a suit right behind him! Oh wait, that’s depression personified, portrayed by Chris Tempest, who is literally billed as Black Dog, but sings, dresses, and dances like a British dandy. He’s also completely inconsequential to the story in terms of character. Then there’s Dave’s wife, Sharon, who also seems to be suffering, but there’s no time to explore the effects of depression on a spouse, because Dave’s been made redundant and has decided to leave his family. But it’s all okay in the end, because Sharon doesn’t enjoy being single, so she decides to simply take Dave back without addressing his mental health. Correction, she does momentarily blame him for not telling her earlier about his depression. They kiss, Dave’s mates remain shitty partners to their wives, and the kids run tantalisingly close to the balcony from which Dave nearly jumped earlier. When the prospect of child-death is the most exciting moment in a musical, you better be writing Les Misérables or Spring Awakening.
Perhaps a subtle hand to allow the intention to permeate the production will help? Nope. Geoff Turkington has directed “over 30 productions of various scale throughout Australasia”, which is an odd way of listing one’s credits, but perhaps it’s best to hide your tracks when you don’t know what you’re doing. One of the roles of a director is to protect your cast by ensuring they won’t look foolish on stage. Turkington instead sets them spinning like dreidels, aimlessly filling space and time. There’s only so much an actor can do on their own, and Turkington has failed his cast.
But wait. There’s more. Content and direction are not the only problems with State Highway 48. For such a narratively episodic structure, production designer Ben M Rogers could have gone for a simple, minimalist approach in order to keep the show running smoothly, but where’s the fun in that? Instead, scene transitions take forever, the set design is boring, set dressing is superfluous, stage hands are often thrown into full light, scenes often begin in complete darkness, and mics are left on backstage and not turned on in time on stage. This show is the dictionary definition of what could go wrong. Sit in the right spot and you’ll even get a direct sightline to side stage, complete with a blue-lit stage manager. Both the back and onstage tracks are so under-rehearsed, at one point, Jenn Shelton FALLS THROUGH A FUCKING TABLE. Which brings me to the cast and crew, because holy shit did she make that moment work like a boss.
Being in a bad show is like parenting an ugly baby. You know. Deep down you know. And you know everyone else knows. The difference is, you see the beauty in and still love an ugly baby. The onstage and backstage talent should be applauded for not only enduring the most technically savage opening night I’ve ever witnessed, but also committing to it with everything they had. My only reason for not mentioning more names is to protect them from the annals of this website.
I don’t doubt that Williams had the best of intentions with State Highway 48, but productions with this level of sponsorship (if I discover they received public funding I’ll probably have a stroke) that have clearly not put the work through a rigorous development process with industry professionals, lower the bar of New Zealand’s theatrical landscape so far it may as well be six feet under. Males in rural areas between the ages of 45-49 are the second biggest group at risk of depression in New Zealand, but State Highway 48 provides no humanity as to how it truly effects peoples’ lives. Auckland, meanwhile, is notorious for rubber-necking, so if you have a macabre fascination with tragedy, State Highway 48 may just be the show for you.