Review: Hudson & Halls Live!

Sam Brooks on Silo Theatre's Hudson & Halls Live!, an original commission that dips into the lives of two iconic TV personalities from the 80s.

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There’s a moment at the midpoint of Hudson & Halls Live! where the life, hilarity and camp that has unfolded for the past hour drops into the most deafening and heartrending silence I’ve experienced in a theatre. It’s been all laughs and hilarity up until then, but this silence feels like an eternity, and it’s in that moment that I realise how special Hudson & Halls Live! is.

Theatre lives in transitions, and it takes a tremendous amount of skill to be able to transition a captive audience from two camp chefs doing their first live show into that crushing, existential silence. Hudson & Halls Live! is exactly a show, a piece of theatre with as much skill as it has heart, a group of creatives working at the height of their collective ability.

I have to confess early on that, like a lot of my generation probably, I’m nowhere near as familiar with Peter Hudson and David Halls as I should be, My main impression of them was that they were two chefs who delighted the country on TV during the ‘80s without ever addressing the fact that they were obviously gay and a couple.

From the moment the show begins, with Jackie van Beek’s floor manager Ngaire Watkins nervously telling us what we’ll have to do as the live studio audience for Hudson and Halls’ first live show, Hudson & Halls Live! never breaks the illusion that we’ve actually been transported right back to the ‘80s and are seeing Hudson and Halls in the flesh.

Doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the show are Todd Emerson and Chris Parker as Peter Hudson and David Halls respectively. Hudson is the comparative straight man of the piece, actually wanting to get the recipes completed and make sure the show goes well, while Halls is flamboyant and camp to the nines, wanting to have fun and have a wine, as if the pair are just making a casual dinner in their kitchen rather than being watched by a live studio audience.

Both performances are equally impressive and entirely lived-in, but the performers never lose grasp of the fact that they’re in what is essentially a screwball comedy and their comic timing is impeccable. It’s a tough balance to play a funny person without playing a Funny Person™, and to be able to rest in the fact that you are playing a person who is simply naturally funny, but both actors do this.

Halls plays to Parker’s natural strengths as a comedian. He’s able to make lines like, “This isn’t Star Wars!” sound like they’re coming from a breathing, living human being and what might look like ridiculous gestures or sound like ridiculous line-readings from another performer sound authentic coming from Parker.

On the complete flip-side, Hudson also plays to Emerson’s gifts as a performer. As seen in Daffodils and Jack Hartnett earlier this year, Emerson has an ability to breathe specificity and uniqueness into the most normal and undistinguished of characters. There’s as much life and vigour in his subdued Hudson as there is in Parker’s larger-than-TV Halls.

What’s harder to pin down is the natural chemistry that Hudson and Halls have and that Parker and Emerson capture, the chemistry of two people working together who clearly love each other and whose love is evident in every moment, but they never get an explicit moment to show it. Nowhere is this more evident than when the show drops into chaos and pathos, as screwball comedies are almost contract-bound to do, and it becomes crystal clear that there is no Hudson without Halls and vice-versa, ‘Hudson and Halls’ is less a show title and more of a necessity.

As the floor manager, Jackie van Beek proves that she’s simply one of the funniest people in the country, if not the funniest person in the country. Hudson and Halls might be duo, but Hudson & Halls Live! would feel incomplete without van Beek keeping the ship running along and every moment she gets onstage, especially her one Tina Cross big moment, is pure comedy gold.

It’s very easy to get lost in the joy of watching Hudson and Halls, and it’s no less joyful to watch van Beek, but it’s her performance that reminds us that we’re in a live studio audience, watching two chefs barely stay on the rails and she does this without ever losing the comedy, whether it’s as simple as her gesture to make the audience stop applauding or creeping about at the front of the kitchen set to hold up recipe cue-cards for the chefs to read off.

Using the Herald Theatre as a venue for a live studio recording is the best use of the venue I’ve seen. Daniel Williams’ set is a photo-perfect recreation of a live studio kitchen that is in every way not a kitchen that anybody would ever have in their house, but one that makes every sense for a TV kitchen. It’s the little kitsch details that make it a piece of genius though, from the tacky plates at the back of the set to the Christmas tree that in no way could’ve been set up by the celebrity chefs, but by a production assistant.

Elizabeth Whiting’s costume design is similarly excellent, from the subtle differences between the chefs’ costumes, Hudson’s is more straight-laced and ill-fitting while Halls’ is just a little bit more personalised and loud, to the similarities between Ngaire’s floor manager costume and her later reveal. While the set keeps us firmly in hyper-naturalism, the costumes are a neat reminder that we’re watching a show, and a fairly ridiculous one at that.

There’s also a certain New Zealand-ness that is captured here. This is so unashamedly a picture of New Zealand in the 80s both in  style and sense of humour, and the show uses both those things to bring out a certain psychology that seems if not unique, then personal, to people here: “Just get on and do it.” Not since Daffodils have I seen a show that is not only unashamed to be from this country, but uses the style and feel of the country and people that live here to its advantage. Hudson & Halls Live! is a show that could only come out of this country, for many reasons, but it also feels so nakedly New Zealand in its construction and artistry.

But it all comes back to that silence I mentioned at the start. The most impressive part of this show is not the actors, not the design, not even the beautiful, brilliant script, but how they all come together to form such a human piece of theatre. There is hilarity here, lots of it, but there is also a profound sadness running all the way through the piece.

It’s hard not to think that these men were obviously gay, were so obviously in a relationship, and that relationship was screened right into New Zealand’s living room, and they were never allowed, or maybe even more tragically, never had the inclination to talk about their relationship in the public.

It’s this sadness that makes the final ten minutes of the show such a beautiful triumph for these two characters and gives them a victory they may have never been allowed to have in real life. When these two are at their most combative, the show resembles Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but in primary colours, but when they’re at their most supportive, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

No other show I’ve seen this year has this much technical virtuosity with this much life. It’s easy when you see so many shows - this is well over my hundredth show this year - to overvalue a technically-flawless production where nobody makes a mistake and everything goes to plan but it’s been so rehearsed and cue-to-cued that there’s no humanity in it. Hudson & Halls Live! is one of those technically flawless productions (even when the show goes wrong and everything goes to chaos, you never feel like you’re watching a Silo show go to the dogs; you feel like you’re in the hands of a group of talented creatives, both onstage and off, who will carry you safely through to whatever destination that is.

On top of that technical virtuosity, Hudson & Halls Live! has a whole lot of heart. The entire team, but especially Chapman, Roberts and Emerson clearly have a lot of love for these two and for what they represented for New Zealand in the ‘80s, and what they can represent now. Hudson and Halls, beyond anything else, were two people who weren’t ashamed to do what they did, and they did it with more fun and love than most of us do in our daily lives.

Hudson & Halls Live! is one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, and maybe the best show. It is enormously entertaining, profoundly sad and a loving homage to two New Zealand icons - who no doubt would’ve loved to have sat in the audience themselves, probably with a champagne cocktail in hand.

Read our history of Hudson and Halls

Hudson & Halls Live! runs at
The Herald Theatre
from November 5 - October 31
Buy your tickets here

Make a night of it!
The Pantograph Punch - in association with Silo and Auckland Live - 
are thrilled to present

A Hudson & Halls Dinner Experience 
A three-course Hudson & Halls-inspired dinner with matched wines
on the stage of The Civic Theatre
followed by Hudson & Halls Live!

5.30pm • Saturday 14 November 
More information here
Tickets available through Ticketmaster 
or by calling Silo Theatre on 09 361 1551