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The Sons of Charlie Paora

Lennie James
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2004)

After a very weak first fifteen minutes, The Sons of Charlie Paora settles down into a moving play about juvenile delinquency and graduation to manhood amongst Samoan Maoris in New Zealand. It views its subject from the perspective of a eulogy to a man who was metaphorically both a seer and blind.

Charlie Paora was an inspirational schoolteacher and rugby coach who happened upon a school that needed him more than he believed that his family did. Ten years or so on, five members of his first XV get together to pay tribute to and remember the man who gave their lives meaning.

When Charlie's two children, the level-headed Sarah (Kiri Lightfoot) and fiery, raging Sonny (Wesley Dowdwell) turn up at the wake, a full picture of a man who is not seen on stage can be pieced together. In fact, Charlie Paora meant different things to different people.

To his "sons" he was a true father figure. Without him, they would probably have ended up like so many of their classmates, dead or in jail. As it is, one of them Jackson, played by Jason Webb, is on the brink of the All Blacks team while the remaining four rascals are growing up and coming to terms with themselves.

Charlie's deserted wife and daughter still worship the man who gave so much to his team that he had little left for his family. Perhaps the most interesting character is Sonny who both loved and felt let down by his father. Ultimately, he is offered ritual release by Max Palamo's Ezra.

The play also allows something of a view into two different cultures, one familiar, the other far less so, and the ways in which they meet or fail to do so. In some ways, this is almost best exemplified by two different symbols. One is "the green stuff" or guacamole, and the other is dance. Liston Rua as the pony-tailed Lothario, Miro, is a genius of a break-dancer when The Jackson Five make it onto the stereo but Sonny can compete, albeit in a more modern streetwise style.

With its final message of redemption, this New Zealand import is ultimately an uplifting two hours with its combination of European style drama and Maori expression; there are dances and chants, fights and rugby.

For all of the weaknesses of this overly long but always affectionate production, directed by Samantha Scott, the artistic director of the Massive Company from Auckland, it is genuinely moving. It is also welcome, as the London stage has seen nothing quite like this for a considerable time.

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version

Reviewer: Philip Fisher