Review: Break Up (We Need To Talk)

Hamish Parkinson reviews Binge Culture's Break Up (We Need To Talk)

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Six hours in a theatre. Six hours in a darkened theatre on a stunning Saturday afternoon during peak beach hours. Six hours watching five grown adults wearing banana suits enacting a fake break-up. On Valentine’s Day.

I sat for all six of those hours. I watched every bit of the Break Up (We Need to Talk). I didn’t leave once. I could have – I was allowed to come and go as I please, hell, I didn’t even have to turn up, and if I wanted to I could have just watched it at home on the free live-stream. All the power was mine to observe this as I pleased.

Thankfully, the idea for the show formed in the hands of Wellington-based theatre company Binge Culture, who have a string of impressive boundary-pushing works behind them and a wall full of awards for ‘Most Original’ at the New Zealand Fringe. The set-up is casual: beanbags for people to lie on and no audience interaction, even if you walk past them to leave, making it a relaxed observational exercise with unfolding themes like deep-set, irrational fears of unattractiveness, intelligence levels and likability. The set is sparse: four chairs for four actors playing the ‘other’ in the conversation and one chair in front for the ‘protagonist’, shared in turn by all five performers (Joel Baxendale, Gareth Hobbs, Fiona McNamara, Claire O’Loughlin and Ralph Upton).

They are clearly caring improvisers who are closely attuned to each other. They know when the lead needs to have a break and step in to fill the role. All the offers are used, and this is done most successfully when they’re seeded into the continuing narrative. Since it’s improvised, and since it takes place over such an exhausting amount of time, some of these facts become jumbled between the characters. Instead of correcting each other, they go with it, making the break-up, oddly, more believable. All of the years they spent together start to blur a little and the stress of holding onto the sinking ship starts to unravel them as they grasp to find meaning in these devastating moments. It’s frustrating watching, but also cathartic and for the most part, bloody funny.

I can only assume the type of break-ups that they will play out in future runs will be different. The one I saw was a relationship way past its used-by date; a couple in their twenties, six years into their relationship, whatever had connected them in the first place long lost. Most conversations quickly devolved into disagreements rather than discussions, both eager to cut each other down out of frustration. Both characters played the villain, with this sometimes escalating in awkward faux pas that evoke a Jerry Springer-like response from the audience. The more they get themselves into trouble and try to navigate the politics of their failing relationship, the more engaging it becomes. The best responses are the ones that both cut deep to how ridiculous we can be in a break-up and satirises them: one argues the whole relationship has been a joint effort, so it can’t be the protagonists choice, to which the protagonist responds “Actually I think it is.”

It’s the details that make this a success. The more specifics we know about their relationship, their individual feelings and the reasons they hold on, the more we feel their pain. The more details the performers give each other to draw upon is what the show hinges on, and they can risk having more. I’d like to see what would happen if the relationship was in a better place at the start. The game ended up being one played between two people who know they’d have to break up, making the question “Who will leave with the power?” I’d love to suffer through this again and see how complicated and murky a different break-up could be. One of the funniest and heartbreaking moments in the Valentine’s Day edition came when, before finally leaving, one bitterly said, “I hope we can still be friends.” The audience erupted with laughter. It would never be an option.

In the same way that no one relationship will end the same, no one of these shows will be the same either – despite the inevitable conclusion – and it’s that unknown risk that makes us want to dive head first into both. I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops, Binge Culture are one of New Zealand’s most interesting devisors and with Break Up (We Need to Talk) they’ve managed to create something that perfectly encapsulates the excruciating journey of break-ups into something that ultimately feels like a celebration of love’s painful conclusion.