The Factory is worthy of four stars. Not five but four unequivocal fulsome stars that applaud this production for its artistic merit and the fact that it is openly responding to a shameful chapter in New Zealand’s history: when Polynesian immigrant workers were beguiled with the notion that the journey to the promised land of NZ would bring them “milk, honey and money”.
That journey, made by co-founder Vela Manusaute’s father, inspired the Kila Kokonut Krew to bring the story of that journey and its consequences to life. And they have done so with a class unto themselves.
Losa and her father arrive in New Zealand on a three month visa and thanks to the help of Miselei (a fa’afafine with style and connections) are able to get work in a local South Auckland textile factory. The narrative is predictable.
There are The Factory workers, most of whom are disappointed with the lies and the life that has been carved out for them but unwilling to jeopardizs their jobs by challenging the status quo. The one exception has notably been named Moses. The owner of The Factory is a smug cruel man whose only son Edward is attracted to Losa, despite his fathers repeated reminders of the supposed differences in their upbringing and that it’s important to ‘know your place’ no matter which side you were raised.
The formulaic American musical genre is evident and some scenes are simply too convenient. Often the underlying drama of the narrative is smothered beneath an avalanche of funky tunes and slick choreography (of which both are excellent) yet not quite in harmony with the depth and investment that the stories deserve.
The score is indeed excellent with songs both in Samoan and in English and they vary from huge group numbers on The Factory floor or in the dance hall, to tender duets between father and daughter or the two young lovers. The most powerful and moving sequences are undoubtedly the larger ensemble pieces which take the production’s musical score to a whole new level.
The Factory is not about showcasing ‘authentic’ or even ‘native’ Samoan voices and culture on stage. This is not a nostalgic past to be gawked at by international audiences – and occasionally it runs the risk of lending itself to that form. Yes, it is a feel-good musical but it is about a living culture, vibrant and alive and very much present in the now as they tell a story that many of their parents may have experienced.
The main issue with the show is that while it does use the musical genre to create its own highly specific and unique storytelling form, the fact is it still butts into the West End version of an exportable theatrical commodity, running the risk of establishing self-imposed boundaries that could curtail the creativity and expression of this talented troupe.
However, the fact is that South Auckland company Kila Kokonut Krew are taking Samoan stories to the main stage, not just in Aotearoa NZ but right here in Edinburgh. And that is a reflection not just of the constantly changing landscape of theatre but indeed of power, politics and Pacific voices reasserting the right to tell stories in their own words on their own terms.
And that deserves an ovation.
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