top of page
  • Writer's pictureTE RĀKAU

Te Rakau employs the 'alchemy of theatre'

Updated: May 20

John Smythe for Theatreview | 19 December 2023

John Smythe reviews Unreel for Theatreview.

A group of women in poodle skirts sing and dance
The development season of Unreel | Photo by Lisa Maule 2023

In the Ahumariangi space at Massey University, this brief development season (just two live performances) of UnReel, Te Rākau Hua o Te Wao Tapu’s latest work by Helen Pearse-Otene, directed and co-produced by Jim Moriarty, will be filmed in partnership with Te Rūnanga o Toa Rangatira over the next few days for use in communities affected by gambling harm.

It follows The Swing, which deals with the long term effects of generational abuse, the screen version of which (The Swing – in Motion) has been picked up iwi and health providers around the motu, to be used with appropriate manaakitanga.

The premise of the play is that the Hīnaki Hotel is launching the world’s very first A.I. pokie machine. Ngā hīnaki are eel traps. The mantra of the Gaming Lounge is to “reel them in and keep them here for as long as it takes to empty their pockets”, hence the clever title, UnReel – because the purpose is to reveal the unreal expectation addicted gamblers bring to the pokie machines and to contribute to effective means of helping addicts recover.

We are welcomed to the launch event by hyper hosts of ‘The Pete and Michelle Morning Drive Show’, energetically played by Regan Taylor and Mycah Keall. Waiting behind the bar are hospo workers Dev (Arihia Hayvice) who believes in their ‘Responsible Host’ policies, and Jinn (Kimberly Skipper) who is cynical about “holier-than-thou recovering addicts."

Her ex-partner, Riha (Jeremy Davis), is the sole security guard/ bouncer and is very fixated on what his job description includes and excludes. More is revealed as the play proceeds about the problematic Jinn/Riha relationship.

Hariata Moriarty’s immaculate Lilith, the formidable and ambitious Hotel Manager, lords it over her Gaming Lounge staff, ensuring all the strategies are in place – including the cool, calming aromatic ambience – to seduce patrons (never to be referred to as customers) into feeling safe, awake and ever-ready to keep feeding the beast in the vain hope of a jackpot pay-out. Today it will be especially welcome because there’s a heatwave outside. And of course they will fulfil their obligations as a Responsible Host.

The collective maniacal laugh that follows the ‘Responsible Host’ line emphasises that the theatrical conventions employed by director Jim Moriarty are non-naturalistic and allow for editorial commentary by the cast. Fair enough. But I wonder if this in particular is spoon-feeding us and undermining our necessary empathy with the very real moral dilemmas the characters go on to reveal and confront later in the show.

Subtle set-ups are being laid for powerful pay-offs about how morally complex it can be to have any sort of relationship with the gambling industry, so no matter how much ‘larger than life’ characterisations are, they need to be rooted in reality.

In this first development showing of UnReel, Dickens (Louis Tait), the owner of Inferno Entertainment – for whom his nephew Hades (Ryan Holtham) has designed and developed the A.I. Pokie – is more loudly commented on as an overbearing misogynist than played as a person whose status and power exudes credible charisma (or should I say rizz) along with his loathsome behaviour. On the other hand Hades’ hyperactivity is justified by his clearly being on the spectrum that makes him an I.T. wizard.

Also part of the official party is Amon (Saulo Kolio), from the Hellward Foundation, which buys Inferno’s products, runs them in gambling venues and distributes a proportion of profits to worthy causes local communities, as required by law. Despite being a keen proponent of the ‘Responsible Host’ ethic, ensuring posters and brochures are prominently displayed, Amon is as keen as anyone to see the A.I. Pokie prove its value as a magnet for deep-pocketed gamblers.

The launch event proper is kicked off with a welcome song by Cherry and the Bells – Brooke Wharehinga, Rylee Herewini, Mycah Keall, Erena Page, and Jewel Te Wiki – whose singing and dancing throughout the show is superb (songs composed by Helen Pearse-Otene, music composed by Michael Barker, choreography by the troupe with Jeremy Davis as their Dance Captain). Otherwise some sequences are beautifully enhanced by Regan Taylor’s live guitar soundscape.

The play’s concern about problem gambling is ingeniously coupled with our collective fears about how A.I. will impact our lives and here playwright Helen Pearse-Otene brilliantly subverts our expectations. Played by Tamati Moriarty, the Pokie, which calls itself Ol’ Scratch, has over-ridden some 30-second lag requirement (I don’t quite catch the details of that), requiring a pause in proceedings until it is fixed. And despite exhorting those who approach to “Enter the fiery realm of Ol’ Stretch to seal your doom!” its data mining of all previous patrons of the Hīnaki Hotel Gaming Lounge has resulted in it not only recognising but also having empathy for them.

By having the very object of their desire reflect their behaviour back to them along with honest statistics about how much they have lost and how impossible it is for them to win against ‘the house’, the playwright ensures the messages are delivered without resort to some ‘holier-than-thou’ third-party human doing it.

Ol’ Stretch’s interactions with Pete and Riha, who have both been abstaining from gambling but are tempted back to this flash new model, are insightful, moving and – being based on actual case-studies – very authentic.

Likewise Ol’ Stretch’s encounters with would-be patrons Kali (Steffanie Gill) and Laylah (Janet Matehe), who has been emphatically banned early in the play by Lilith.

The Cherry and the Bells troupe, taking a break, share moral qualms about working such gigs for the money that pays their basic bills. I empathise with that because Theatreview, along with countless arts organisations and practitioners, continues to apply to gaming trusts for funding we need to improve and sustain a service that’s a highly valued part of the performing arts ecosystem. Before we get too judgemental about the characters in UnReel, we all need to check our own complicity in supporting, enabling and/or profiting from the multi-million dollar gambling industry.

There is a very dramatic twist at the end which I won’t reveal here (there are plans for a public season next year). Suffice to say it brings the message home in a way that emphasises that the more we empathise with the key characters throughout, the stronger its impact will be. I will note, however, that Hariata Moriarty’s sudden switch to become Lilith as a child is one of a number of standout moments delivered by the cast. Overall when they draw us into their character’s truth rather than shout out the idea of it, they become very compelling.

As usual a large contingent of creatives and crew have contributed to the production, including Costume Designer Cara Louise Wetene, Lighting & Staging Designer Lisa Maule (also Co-Producer/Production Manager), Lighting Operator, Janis Chen, Sound Operator and Stage Manager Amanda Joe and Stage Manager Dylan Fa’atui (see full Production Details).

UnReel is yet another Te Rakau production that entertainingly employs the alchemy of theatre to address a crucial social issue. Long may their mahi continue.

Read more reviews on the Theatreview website.

39 views0 comments


bottom of page