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Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Unfasten your seatbelts

14 February 2020

Perth Festival play Black Ties is a ripper, David Zampatti says, especially the second act (which he can’t tell you about).

Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Te Rehia Theatre, Black Ties ·
State Theatre Centre Studio, 13 February 2020 ·
Reviewed by David Zampatti ·

It doesn’t take long to get the idea. The opening tableau of Black Ties is a series of images of gorgeous panoramic bush sunrises, with a chorus of native birds singing along to Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood”.

Then we meet the loving couple at the centre of the play, handsome Kane Baker (Mark Coles Smith) and blushing Hera Tapuwera (Tuakoi Ohia) doing some billing and cooing of their own.

No need to fasten our seatbelts: we’re not in for a bumpy ride tonight. Sure, the path to wedded bliss has the odd thorn hidden among the roses strewn about it, but the happily-ever-afters aren’t likely to be ultimately denied our young lovers.

Chief among the thorny questions that provide most of the play’s humour and all of its tension is the obvious: what will two proud families, one Aboriginal, one Maori, make of this union of star-crossed lovers? Will the kids be able to steer through to safe waters, or will their families go all Capulet and Montague on them? Who will be the wise heads, and who will be the hot ones?

Surprise, surprise – neither the Bakers nor the Tapuweras are over the moon about the proposed marriage. The lovers get some support from their siblings – Hera’s sisters Tama-Girl (Tawhirangi Mapherson) and Shannon (Brady Peeti), and Kane’s sister Alethea (Dalara Williams) and foster-brother and putative best man Jermaine (Dion Williams) – but the family matriarchs, Sylvia Tapuera (Lana Garland) and Ruth Baker (Lisa Maza), aren’t keen at all, and that’s putting it mildly. Hera’s estranged dad, Robert (Tainui Tukiwaho, shrewdly conceived as a Maori version of Wal Footrot) is wary too, but that’s more a dad-losing-my-little girl thing rather than any particular ethnic hostility – he is living in Perth and working FIFO, as it turns out, and many of his mates are blackfellas.

Jack Charles as Uncle Mick holds court in ‘Black Ties’. Photo: Jess Wyld

The wisest heads in the story sit on the shoulders of the Bakers’ Uncle Mick (the diminutive, mellifluous, utterly adorable Jack Charles), who knows too much to argue or to judge, and the band, Tony (Brendan Boney), Sarsaparilla (Mayella Davis) and Blackie (Laughton Kora). The band – who play an abfab selection of mainly 80s hits – are also skilfully integrated into the action by the director Rachel Maza, working with co-director and writer Tainui Tukiwaho from New Zealand’s Te Rehia Theatre company and his co-writer, John Harvey, from the Ilbijerri Theatre Company. But will they get to be a wedding band? It’s a question left hanging at interval.

After the break, we all (redacted redacted redacted) with shimmering streamers (part of Jason Nash’s spekky design) and all the other paraphernalia of a (redacted redacted redacted) Jack Hibberd’s perennial classic, Dimboola, (redacted redacted redacted) on for young and old, especially when Shannon and Alethea really get (redacted redacted redacted) like a hirsute Aboriginal Bob Hawke saves the day (redacted redacted redacted) … ever after. The cast make great fun of it, especially those expert scene-stealers Charles and Kora, and we all get to join the party.

The first week of this year’s Perth Festival has been an unmitigated wonder, exploring the triumphs and tragedies of the indigenous experience in all its facets. I’ve felt privileged to witness it. And Black Ties has a special place in the brilliant ceremony that festival director Iain Grandage and his team have conjured up. With its humour and lightness of touch, and especially with its ability to poke fun at its own (on both sides of the ditch) as well as the universal human condition, Black Ties is like the classic best man at a wedding: a little pissed, a little nervous, with some hilariously bad old jokes – have you heard the one about the (redacted redacted redacted)? – to roll out in his speech.

Perth Festival’s Black Ties runs at the State Theatre Centre Studio until 16 February 2020.

Pictured top: There’s lots of family love between Hera (Tuakoi Ohia), Alathea (Dalara Williams) and Kane (Mark Coles Smith). Photo: Jess Wyld

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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