Three reviews of this year’s Basement Theatre Christmas Show.
It pains me to say it but I’m a veteran of the annual Basement Theatre Christmas show at this point. In the decade that I’ve been a regular of the theatre, I’ve seen Kura Forrester do a tour-de-force 10-minute monologue that tore the house down, Rose Matafeo do an iconic impersonation of Kiri Te Kanawa, and a pre-ministerial Jacinda Ardern play Helen Clark (and then DJ the closing night party!).
That’s why it delights me to say that Jingle Bellethon Telethon, co-written by Janaye Henry, Bea Gladding (starring the former, directed by the latter) and Frickin’ Dangerous Bro’s Jamaine Ross is a goddamned delight, and more than worthy of being in the canon of chaotic, riotous, silly as hell Basement Theatre Christmas Shows. The premise, which revolves around a dingy, kept-together-by-glad-wrap, telethon to raise money for… something that is delightfully unclear ends up being more a vehicle for a on-point cast, some savage jokes, and deep, deep silliness.
A Basement Theatre Christmas show cannot work without a cast that is entirely on point, and you only have to look back at the truly stacked core casts of the past decade to see how lucky both the venue and audiences have been to book that talent. Of particular note are Batanai Mashingaidze and Janaye Henry, playing exes who cannot get over a Christmas faux-pas but still have to work together, who end up being the sparkling duet at the heart of the show; Henry’s dour deadpan as the boom operator deliciously undercutting the effervescence of Mashingaidze’s floor manager’s bubbly panic. It’s Brady Peeti as the telethon’s resident diva, however, who absolutely plays grand larceny with the show, rocking onstage in an office chair and a singing voice that can probably be heard from over the road from the venue.
It would also go amiss not to mention a recurring bit featuring New Zealand’s most famous Christmas infomercial, and equally amiss to spoil the punchlines, but it’s really worth the price of admission just to see what this cast do with this strange part of local television iconography.
The Basement Theatre Christmas show ends up, by design or by proxy, being a really great x-ray of where the venue, and theatre sector in Auckland, is at. Way back in 2012, Kim Dotcom had a starring role, as did a lot of the venue’s regulars, in a weird marriage between chaos and commercial. Last year, the venue pivoted to a (hilarious) rotating cast improv show by Heartthrobs, a wise choice due to the tidal shifts of the pandemic. Seeing an all-POC cast delivering some extremely savage jokes, many directed at the country’s whiteness and whakamā around our culture, shows me how far Basement Theatre has come, and where it is looking to in the future. / Sam Brooks
The Jingle Bellethon Telethon got me in the mood for Christmas in the sense that it got me in the mood for utter chaos; it is, if nothing else, a useful opportunity to practice going with the flow at Christmas.
Unlike Sam, I am not a Christmas show veteran – in fact, I’d never even been to the Basement Theatre before, nor have I ever watched a telethon. This meant I really did not know what to expect but gleeful hyper-stimulation and a cast who were really doing the most meant I had a good time regardless.
I think my favourite sketch was the dour magician, who wants to speak up for an important Christmas cause: the underrepresented magicians who don’t know their value. And the charity the telethon is raising money for gets revealed partway through and is also very funny. I could have spent more time meditating on how this joke refracted hysterical political discourse into a more profound shape but I was too distracted by whatever was going on on stage: glittery, loud and very talented. There’s even some beautiful Christmas carols! It’s joyful, festive, slightly leftfield and a completely great time. / Shanti Mathias
The Basement Christmas show is a long and hallowed tradition, dating back to 2009 – coincidentally the same year of New Zealand’s last telethon (if you discount 2021’s Vaxathon). And it’s this historical backdrop that’s drawn upon for the Jingle Bellethon Telethon.
As with all Basement Christmas productions, this year’s is as chaotic and unpredictable as you’d expect. While the format of the telethon loosely glues all the individual acts together, it almost can’t be thought of as a “play”. It’s more of a collection of sketches, though somehow even less coherent than last year’s fully improvised production. I found the story messy, but the characters and gags strong – particularly Janaye Henry’s sound director and her ex, the overworked stage manager played by Batanai Mashingaidze. Henry, like others in the cast, pulls double duty as a truly dislikable “cruise comedian” which was perhaps the performance of the night.
Plot aside, there are a number of loose comedic threads that run throughout the show, including a surreal invocation of the Chrisco Lady and some excellent slow motion acting that were oddly the highlights for me despite having almost nothing to do with the overarching story.
The Jingle Bellethon Telethon is a mixed bag overall, but it provides enough good humour and strong performances to make up for a skint story. It’s part of the joy of the Basement Christmas show that each year’s is unrecognisable from the last, and while the “guest star” bit may be running a bit dry, this production provides proof that this is one Christmas tradition I can firmly stick behind. / Stewart Sowman-Lund