Review: Auckland Theatre Company's That Bloody Woman

The cast of Auckland Theatre Company's That Bloody Woman (Michael Smith Photography)
The cast of Auckland Theatre Company's That Bloody Woman (Michael Smith Photography)

The story of Kate Sheppard and New Zealand's groundbreaking Women's Suffrage movement is an unlikely but inspired choice for a punk rock musical.

The way in which Sheppard went about securing voting rights for women in 1893 was a far cry from the anarchic roots of the 1970s punk movement, yet the two share the same bloody-minded, revolutionary spirit that makes them a perfect complement.

That Bloody Woman, written by Luke di Somma and Gregory Cooper, shows how powerful contemporary musical theatre can be: socially conscious, historically aware and downright good fun.

Esther Stephens builds an utterly convincing case for Sheppard as a firebrand, foul-mouthed feminist. She's charming, alluring -- and won't hesitate to punch you in the guts when she needs to.

Review: Auckland Theatre Company's That Bloody Woman

Sheppard walks the audience through her story with one foot in the late 19th century but the other firmly planted in 2016, offering a chance to see how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.

In the role, Stephens connects with the audience immediately, and effortlessly holds the crowd through the rock numbers and power ballads as well as in Sheppard's more vulnerable moments.

She is well-supported by a small but energetic ensemble, with the vocally powerful Phoebe Hurst a real highlight. Geoffrey Dolan delights as King Dick, a rapping caricature of then-Prime Minister Richard Seddon.

Review: Auckland Theatre Company's That Bloody Woman

The songs are what really take That Bloody Woman up a notch from stage show to all-out party. The astute use of genres spanning punk to gospel gives the show great pacing and emotional depth.

The show is staged in the vein of a rock concert with the live band on stage, a la Hedwig and the Angry Inch. (I did observe a number of fingers in the ears of older audience members, however Auckland Theatre Company's website states earplugs are available.)

Director Kip Chapman brings it all together, with Rachael Walker's striking set pieces, Brendan Albrey's lighting design, Olivia Tennet's playful choreography and a veritable dress-up box full of props turned into a relatively simple yet utterly captivating production.

It's patriotism without being sickening, although some of the dialogue is heavier-handed on the feminism than it needs to be, given the message is already very clearly conveyed through the songs and characterisations.

If you'll indulge me for a minute here -- I can't stop thinking about how much the show reminds me of Hamilton, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical currently taking Broadway by storm: political revolution, a figurehead on the $10 note, a hilarious colonial villain, styles of music incongruous to the time period… It's all there!

That's not to suggest anything untoward, of course, merely to highlight how inspired the concept is and how ready the world is to see such bold productions.

That Bloody Woman is a bloody great night out.

That Bloody Woman, Skycity Theatre Auckland until June 26, then Court Theatre Christchurch July 2 - 30.

This review was based on the June 10 preview.

Reviewed by Kim Choe/Newshub.