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Having a laugh at the ‘good life’

The 1960s and 70s gave us hippies and the dream of simple, self sufficient living. TV brought us a sitcom, The Good Life, in which Richard Briars and Felicity Kendall rejected the rat-race and consumerism and tried self-sufficient living in the suburbs. The Campervan can be seen as the 21st century’s answer to The Good Life: the same dream, similar humour, but with a darker reality only thinly veiled.

Hugh Webb is an extremely successful businessman who owns, among other things, 28 properties, an art collection, and other “baubles.” He is the stereotypical rich man who has everything yet knows something is lacking in his life – an almost Biblical theme. To celebrate his 60th birthday, he has gathered his family. Second wife Tamsin is younger than Hugh and enjoys the lifestyle this marriage has given her. Son Marco, a wannabe filmmaker relies on the Bank of Dad as his birthright and does not appear to actually do anything at all. Then there is Marco’s mother – Hugh’s first wife Gillian – who is an ageing hippy and aspiring Green party candidate with the whole catalogue of woke clichés.

As the family gather, Hugh announces that he plans to sell everything, and live a simple life in the decrepit campervan parked outside. This will fund his new philanthropic dream of “Aucklandia,” a “not for profit” self-sustaining inner-city farm that will grow free food on land liberated by demolishing suburban houses. His family – and we the audience – are expected both to sympathise with him in his distress of soul and to admire his selfless generosity.

As expected, Tamsin and Marco share neither his vision nor his enthusiasm. They are aghast at the looming lifestyle changes. Gillian, on the other hand, gives every positive encouragement. The Green Party support the initiative. The final character to add to this mix is Johnny, Hugh’s thrice-divorced business partner whose aim is to save the company.

As Hugh, Josh Cameron is a youthful 60. He clearly shows the sincerity of conviction required in Act 1, though it is in Act 2 that the truth of his entitled character reveals itself. Does he learn anything from this experiment? As second wife Tamsin, about to lose all that she has, Carol Buck displays the brittleness and uncertainty that a younger wife must feel in the constant presence of the former. Luka Cameron falls well into the role of son Marco, the woke young man whose every whim has been provided. Julie Foley convinces as the Green Party stalwart and first wife Gillian, but is her motivation as pure as the Green facade would have us believe?

Finally, Danny Clenott is Johnny, the all-seeing business partner who watches from the sidelines. His acerbic comments show he is more aware than any of them just what is going on, and that he knows the strategies to use. As the season progresses and familiarity grows, timing will become more precise and sharpen some of the dialogue.

Stage Manager Hal Morgan and his team used every available inch of Harlequin Theatre’s small stage to create, first, the living room of Hugh and Tamsin’s house [well, one of Hugh’s houses].

In Act 2, this cleverly transforms into the campervan site where Hugh awaits the creation of his farm. While the campervan is exactly the well-used relic described in Act 1, more could have been made of the living room set, which seems simply clean and comfortable. A conspicuous display of high-end luxury in Act 1, whether antique or latest fashion, would show more starkly what Tamsin has to lose, and increase the contrast between wealth and poverty that is apparent in Act 2.

Director Maria Hinton is to be congratulated for assembling such a diverse range of actors to give life to this very modern and amusing play.

Its humour is an excellent pick-me-up for a cold, wet winter. I would encourage everyone to explore what the 21st century has done to The Good Life.

    The Campervan plays at Harlequin Theatre, Dixon Street, until 15 July.

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