All this and Evison too, Denis Welch

Happy Days in Muckle Flugga
Pat Evison
ISBN 1 86950 267 1

Early on in Pat Evison’s very enjoyable book, there is a recollection of a remarkable incident in London in 1947. Young Patricia Blamires, as she was then, was desperately keen to keep doing a training course at the Old Vic Theatre Centre, but was equally desperately short of money. Searching for possible sources of income, she wondered whether the New Zealand Government would give her a drama bursary. She didn’t know if such things existed (they didn’t) but Inia Te Wiata had a music bursary and she, like him, was a young Kiwi making her way in Britain. Not sure which step to take next, she sought advice from Dame Sybil Thorndike (who was “always ready to help young people in the theatre”).

“Oh,” exclaimed the great Dame. “I’ve met your Prime Minister myself. He is a man of action. I will write to him myself!” Eat your hearts out, drama students of today. Fraser awarded Evison five pounds a week and paid her course fees as well.

The story is a telling one in several ways. It typifies Evison’s perky self-confidence (though initially told the course was full, she refused to take no for an answer, personally approached one of the Old Vic directors, won an interview and was accepted – the “21st student in a class of 20”). It tells us heaps, too, about the intimate scale of New Zealand society in those days; and the high regard in which Poms held Kiwis immediately after the War. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, it tells us that theatre has changed a hell of a lot since then; since, indeed, the 1960s.

Evison was the first of several young actors given overseas study bursaries over the next 20 years: in effect, the government paid them to stay away. There was nothing for them back here – nothing that would make them a regular living as actors. Many stayed away for good; Evison, happily, came back, and ploughed her natural gifts, together with what she had learned in London, into indigenous theatre, film, TV and radio. When you grasp the full range of her life and work, as you will when you read this book, it’s not hard to understand why she was made a Dame.

Consider: Whatever major new development occurred in acting between 1960 and 1980, Dame Pat was part of it. She missed being a member of the country’s first professional touring company, the New Zealand Players, preoccupied as she was with raising a family in the 50s – though, even then, her memories of productions done with the Napier Repertory Society give you a vivid glimpse of the heyday of amateur theatre. But she was there when the very first locally written television play went to air (she played a railway station refreshment rooms waitress); she was involved in some of the earliest shows at Downstage, the country’s first fully professional theatre; she had key parts in our first homegrown TV drama series (Pukemanu) and our first soap (Close to Home); and she blazed a trail for New Zealand actors in Australia, both through her stage and film work and through playing Violet Carnegie in The Flying Doctors.

All of which makes this entertaining book far more than a simple autobiography: it is also, in effect, a history of how New Zealand culture grew up, beginning to clamber out of the nest of colonialism in the 50s and finally spreading its wings in the 60s before taking off in the 70s. There seems hardly anyone of significance in the theatre with whom Evison has not, at some time or another worked, so book also acts as a portrait gallery of great players and directors.

Better still, she knows how to write. That is to say, she knows what to leave out, and what she leaves out, mostly, is herself. This is not the inner life of Pat Evison – there are no confessions here. As befits an actor, she presents her life as a play in which the mask of the actor always stays on. She also knows how a play should be shaped – some comedy here, a sad moment there, a little bit of business elsewhere – and keeps the action unfolding at a brisk pace. Such a book might easily have lapsed into a series of chatty anecdotes about “shows I’ve been in” but Evison has too firm a sense of her own modest part in the scheme of things to allow that to happen.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 make up, in fact, a memorable picture of London in the immediate postwar years – the ghastly winters, the frozen pipes, the rationing, the making do on a little, the camaraderie among the small band of Kiwi expatriates, presided over by that extraordinary diplomat, long-serving High Commissioner Bill Jordan, who seemed to take a personal interest in just about every New Zealander living in Britain (he was at Robin Hyde’s graveside when she was buried at Gunnersbury Cemetery a few days before the outbreak of World War II).

Then there was Napier in the early 50s. Despite having come virtually direct from the Old Vic, Evison was brought back to earth with a bump; it being soon made clear to her that “what I had done elsewhere was not of any significance. It was only what you did in Hawke’s Bay that mattered.” There was no Dame Sybil to ride to her rescue this time, and the most that the local rep society was prepared to offer her was a one-act play reading at the next club night. “I was a little surprised,” she writes with delightful restraint, “but I accepted as graciously as I could.”

How could one ever be a prima donna in such a land of poppy-loppers? Such tales make it impossible not to warm to Evison, who comes across in her writing very much as she does as an actor – cheerful, shrewd, direct, big-hearted. Never the star, but never just a character actor either. To the new generation of theatre-makers she may seem remote, like a great-aunt waving “Yoohoo!”, but Happy Days in Muckle Flugga will stand as a lasting memorial to one who helped to build the cultural foundations on which so much else, since, has been constructed.

Unfortunately the book is littered with errors: several names are misspelt, including those of actors with whom Evison worked closely, and the HarperCollins proof-reader has let through the outright howler: “At La Scala we heard a great performance by Andrea Chenier”. Clever chap, that Chenier (since he also happens to be the main character in Giordano’s opera).

A final word about the title. “Muckle Flugga” (actually the name of a rocky crag in the Shetlands) were words that Evison loved to roll around her tongue as a child: they came to symbolise a state of utter contentment. And Happy Days was the Samuel Beckett play in which, buried up to her neck in sand, she had her most resounding success on the stage. The Downstage production was hailed by Bruce Mason as the finest event in New Zealand theatre, and for Evison, bowled over by the acclaim that greeted her performance, it was “my ultimate goal … I had done absolutely the best I could, then, now and forever. It was my muckle-flugga.” Happy days, indeed.

Denis Welch is a Wellington journalist and theatre critic.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction, Review
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