Produced & Directed by Ronald Trifero Nelson
Devised by The Wheelbarrow Group
BATS Theatre, April 12 – 21
In the early hours of Saturday May 8, 1999, fourteen year old Jeff was kicked, beaten and left to die on a Wellington city street. When they heard on the news that he had died, Jason Meads and Steven Smith turned themselves in and were sentenced to ten years in prison. Jeff was just your average teenager; piercings and a bit of purple in his hair. This true story has been explored by actors from The Wheelbarrow Group to create Corner 4am & Cuba. Using actual transcripts from the appeal trials, interviews, and newspaper articles, they devised a mixed show of emotion, humour, song and intensity.
We entered the theatre via a side alleyway, where we stood and watched someone spray paint a stencil on a wall for quite some time. Eventually the rest of the cast appeared from an above building and walked slowly down the stairs humming to a guitar strum. We followed them into the theatre and stood around the stage uncomfortably as they continued singing, taking our seats when Wellington High School Principal Prue Kelly (Jean Copland) instructed us to.
The actors were dressed in neutral coloured t-shirts and black pants which allowed them to switch from one character and situation to another. The set was simply ten or so green recycling bins and two large wheelie bins which were used as seats, counters and stands. The re-enactment of the scenario was played out three times by different actors as Meads and Smith, each time – one being based on the two boys’ own accounts. The violence and anger of the first portrayal (Stewart Pedley and Melissa Philips) was confronting and disturbing, contrasting with the reactions of Jeff’s friends to the news – ranging from disinterested to devastated and angry.
The police officer (Jaki Trolove) who had seen Jeff earlier in the night was questioned as to why he didn’t help. A “lady of the night” (Romy Hooper) tried it on with a barman (Jonny Potts) who sold to minors – singing a clever ditty, “I need a man,” written by herself for the show. The distortion of the situation by the media was made obvious, as actual newspaper headlines were read aloud.
Themes of sexuality appeared throughout the play in the street scenes and in the final re-enactment of the beating. Meads and Smith assumed Jeff was gay, which raises questions about the assuming tendencies of society. The references to streets and landmarks of Wellington gave the issue a much more confronting feel, as it reminded us that it was based on a real and possible situation. The minimalist setting and costuming allowed for it to happen almost anywhere.
The variety of characters, coupled with the intimate nature of the theatre, kept the audience engrossed. The eight actors seamlessly went from stating a newspaper headline to being drunk in the street to flamboyantly dancing the tango. I must admit there were a few moments of being close to tears. By the end of the performance I was very moved and impressed, especially when the cast did not bow at the curtain call for their efforts in telling Jeff’s story. There was something about it that was very noble.