The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]
It Is Significant that the most popular and most widely remembered lyric from the 1954 Extravaganza is the neatly ironic number "Botanical Garden Rakes." Old Extrav. diehards may have been a little puzzled at the success of this number; but for the fresher, just new to the chorus line, it fitted smoothly into what he thought was probably the only pattern of Extravaganza presentation. The music for the "Botanical Garden Rakes" was taken from a new American musical comedy Guys and Dolls; its theme was not political but more broadly satirical. What is more, its presentation was by two performers who were at all times sober and, more significantly, the polish of its production gave some hint that Extravaganza over the next few years was not going to be like the "good old days."
The years 1955 to 1957, the period of our summary, have shown the ascendancy of production over script, and for Extravaganza's sake perhaps this has been a good thing. Taking as our standard the clever writing of the late 1930's, the modern Extravaganza script writer has more and more displayed the tendencies of limited talent. We have replaced satire with burlesque, ignored allegory for the easier occasional pieces of wit in a roughly localised scene. What has been sacrificed has been the sharp light of the spirit of Aristophanes. Now, when we want to strike out at public affairs or public themes we do so only occasionally, and then only after we have prepared the way by giving the audience a colourful background such as page 49 the Taj Mahal or a Western saloon, with jokes and chorus to match. The purist may have something when he complains that the modern Extravaganza lacks form; and perhaps those responsible should not ignore his suggestions that we split our talent and present a revue instead of the present mixture of colour, burlesque, variety acts and occasional satire.
To change the present form of Extravaganza would take a lot of courage. Most of us are content to see it remain as it is because, of course, we have always the Oxford Dictionary definition to fall back on"—"Extravaganza"—a fantastic composition." It might be that we should extend our limited talents to the old idea of brainy topical satire, interspersed with first class humorous ballets. But even if we could, would the box office (and the Executive) allow us to? The intellectual climate of Gilbert has disappeared; the spirit of Aristophanes is a little chilly for the newly upholstered opera house. The warm bond that the audience and the present-day cast of Extravaganza seem to enjoy, comes only from the mutual recognition of the "humour in your lap" spirit that musical comedy, the wireless with Take it from Here and The Goon Show has made so easy for us. It is only because the Extravangaza cast is a little less lazy and complacent than the audience that the battle of the footlights has been won by the students and for the last four years the evenings have been "V.U.C.'s".
The cast and talent available since 1954 has never been so strong, and perhaps never so embarrassing for a producer. Whether continuity is sacrificed or not, he has felt that each gifted player must be given a "spot""—thus the presence of a loosely-knitted ship's concert or a series of screen tests. Not that the available needed any testing: the studied nonchalance of Hutchison and Crowe, the "immortal brass" of Rosemary Lovegrove, the petite 1930 quality of Sylvienne Cockburn, the music hall accent of Homewood and Ferrers, the freakish versatility of Ted Schroder. All these threads of talent have been held together by the straight solidity of baritone Dennis Brown and the increasingly polished work of larger choruses and male ballets. Nor have there been so many blemishes caused by alcohol stains, a fact which has no doubt strengthened the audience enjoyment of a show, even if the cast's has been lessened. Some may complain that Extravaganzas are now too pat, too predictable and lacking in any real capping procession spirit. But it is far more satisfying to know that, in the constant warfare between players and audience, the member of the modern Extravaganza cast has a clearer view of the target and a steadier aim. He may not always hit the bull's eye, but at least he himself is not half shot before he begins to fire.
Whatever is said of the Extravaganza cast of the middle fifties must be linked with the most significant part of our summary"—the raised standard of production. And our remarks on this aspect must begin with one name"—Bill Sheat. Bill came on to the producer's platform when Extravaganza was definitely in the doldrums. His first step was to make rehearsing conditions happier: we moved from the Upper Gym to the Little Theatre and on Sundays "took our tea" in the Students' Association cafeteria. His second step was to convince everyone that no cast"—however competent"—could be just thrown on the stage and be expected to make a show. The producer of Extravaganza also became its director. Dialogue, chorus movements, smooth scene changes, lighting, sound effects and the set received more attention than they had during the previous years. The student could not altogether dispense with the super intelligence praised by a past producer, Dave Cohen, but at least he page 50 went on stage secure in the knowledge that it would take more than the frequent Extravaganza explosion or ad lib to put him off his stride. Bill also introduced tunes from little-known modern musical comedies. This impressed the audience with a new sophistication and gave Extravaganza a fresh and brilliant"—original"—musical air. Front of house changed a little"—dinner suits, no haka party, no interval show. Only the traditional pointed darts which sail from the gallery to the proscenium curtain unsettled the staid atmosphere.
Statisically speaking, during 1955, 1956 and 1957 there have been surprisingly enough three Extravaganzas. '55 saw The Happy Squanderers, produced by Bill Sheat (from a script by Jim Hutchison, Gavin Loe, and others). The production was not as strong as '54's but the script was wittier and made full use of the meaty, topical events of the period"—especially the Compton case. Features of this show were the Extravaganza debut of Sylvienne Cockburn, the Taj Mahal set, the Carmen Jones operetta, and the House of Representatives scene. In '56 came The Seven Year Switch produced by Ian Rich from a script and lyrics by Ian Rich and others. The writing for this show was a little stale and aimed perhaps too much towards the non-intellectuals in the gallery. Even after the many irrevelancies were forgotten, the plot was not always clear, and too full of private and nauseating symbolism. What gave this show its financial profit was the talented cast and, in all humbleness, the production which at times attained a certain pace and brightness. 1957 brought a maturer script from an old Extravaganza hand, Frank Curtin. His work was afterwards named Up the Poll, and adapted and produced by Bill Sheat and Ian Rich. The beauty"—could we be highbrow and say "formal beauty""—of this year's show was that it had a plot that was reasonably clear and coherent"—a double blessing as the cast was not brilliant enough to maintain a loosely-knit and spasmodic one. The production was greatly helped by Derek Homewood as Cecil Candy who brightened the first half, which was slow to warm up.
1955 and 1957 revived the habit of taking Extravaganza on tour"—this time to Hastings. Both shows made money for a local charity, which arranged billets for the cast, football matches and visits to the local hospital. To take a show on tour is a large undertaking and a venture rarely thought of by other University Colleges. V.U.C.'s Extravaganza does it without a qualm; and the reason for this is its smiling quality of showmanship. This may sound a little pretentious, but who else would gaily open its show at an ill-equipped theatre like the Lower Hutt Town Hall, proceed to Wellington and then announce to a dumbfounded public that "because of public demand" the show will have a 5 o'clock matinee before its last evening's performance? What producer of any other capping concert would arrange an elaborate curtain call for the author who has travelled all the way down from Hamilton? And what other author opens and closes his show with extravagant praise for his own brain-child?
Showmanship is linked with self-confidence; and with this aspect in mind we must ask ourselves "whither Extravaganza?" This year's tour to Hastings was a little disappointing in that the performances of the show were not up to scratch. There was a general air of smugness and both cast and technicians were guilty of dangerous complacency. It seems that at the moment we are riding on the crest of a wave, but the results will be catastrophic for 1958 if the swell changes unnoticed to a crippling backwash. Old hands of course are always retiring; but will next year's company be imbued with the necessary spirit of hard work? One of the page 51 easiest ways of insuring the continuity of a tradition is strong and competent administration. But this year's has shown signs of breaking down"—in quite simple matters too. For example, on the way back to Wellington it was noticed that the large advertising banner still fluttered across the main street of Hastings. This state of affairs was quickly dealt with"—until it was discovered that all previous efforts were foiled because the administration had failed to arrange for a pair of wire cutters. Everyone embarked and the buses accelerated towards Wellington. The proud banner proclaiming Extravaganza 1957 was left behind"—in an untidy heap at the foot of a telegraph pole.
Is there something symbolic in this?
G. I. Rich