Words

The Perfect Gift - Review

Review by Jenny Wake for Theatreview 

Justin and his brothers have planned a busy day. First on their checklist is play time, followed by a bit of tidying then the main event: Mum’s birthday.  

Playing comes naturally to this trio. Their rough-and-tumble games reveal their rituals, pecking order, creativity and enormous capacity for fun. Play time gets a big tick.  

They know the drill when it comes to cleaning up, although the more they tidy, the messier things get as each chore inspires a madcap diversion. Eventually, there’s a second tick on their checklist.

But what can they give their mum for her birthday when pooling all their financial resources gives them a budget of just 30 cents? With their dad no longer around, it’s up to the boys to work it out for themselves.

Creator/ director/ performer Justin Haiu, AKA Jandel J, grew up in a family of boys who lost their father at young age. The Perfect Gift, based on his own childhood experiences, was developed through improvised play in the rehearsal room with his ‘Funky Friends’, Italia Hunt and Tupua Tigafua. 

Their playful approach in rehearsal translates to a hilarious, joyful romp on stage, as the boys’ quest for an affordable gift takes them on a series of thrilling adventures. One moment they’re plunging into a subterranean beast’s lair, in a scene featuring a star turn by a soft toy; next minute they’re taking off on a swooping magic carpet ride – without ever moving more than a metre or two from their living room sofa. 

There’s nothing flash about the super-simple set, props and costumes, which all look like they might have been purchased with whatever spare change Jandel J & the Funky Friends had in their pockets. But don’t be misled: a wealth of talent and expertise has gone into this production. 

Between them, Haiu, Hunt and Tigafua have racked up an impressive range of stage, film and TV credits. The experience and skills Haiu alone brings to this production include choreography, street dancing (hence the alias ‘Jandel J’), clowning, TV stunt work (Power Rangers) and musical theatre (an international tour with The Lion King).

Tigafua, too, is a dancer and choreographer [he made Shel We? which Justin Haiu also performed in]. It should be no surprise, then, that the brothers’ boisterous play is characterised by superb physical theatre, cool dance moves and seemingly effortless athleticism.   

Then there’s the singing. The Perfect Gift is peppered with snippets of best-loved songs from popular musicals, sung by all three actors in warm, beautiful harmonies.

Tigafua and Hunt have beards, but the actors’ portrayals of the young brothers are so authentic that, beyond initial comic effect, the facial hair barely registers.

There’s an easy flow between realities. Haiu, Hunt and Tigafua use their own first names for their characters. Justin, Italia and Tupua are boys and yet men. They are at home yet at Toitoi, the Hastings Opera House, and the three of them encompass the entire audience.

Some props are real, some transformed in our imaginations and some wholly imaginary. When the brothers instigate a balloon fight, such is the belief that, in a split second, they’re reaching for squabs from the sofa to defend themselves as children lob imaginary water bombs from the auditorium. 

With spot-on comedic timing, outstanding physical theatre skills and lively audience rapport, Jandel J & the Funky Friends showcase clowning at its playful, energetic, warm-hearted best.

But there’s more to The Perfect Gift than clowning around. The boys are missing their father and there’s a breath-hold moment when they reveal how deeply it hurts that he won’t ever be back. Now, more than anything, they want to make their mum happy again. A lot is riding on her elusive birthday present.

The brothers may not have much, but they have each other. They also have the values and life lessons instilled in them by their dad. They have everything they need to give their mum a birthday present way better than money could buy.

At show’s end, a happy hubbub fills the auditorium. Is it my imagination, or are children and parents feeling the love, feeling a little bit closer, feeling confident they too have the resources needed to handle life’s biggest challenges?

A huge tick to Jandel J & the Funky Friends for this perfect gift of a family show.

 

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