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Review: Grand Horizons proves families are deliciously weird and it’s ok

As the curtain rises, on ATC’s production of Grand Horizons, we see a rather stunning open plan home, replete with kitchen, dining area, and lounge. It is full of light and looks both expensive, yet also middle class. The kind of home you might find on Auckland’s North Shore. 

We see an aging couple about to sit down to dinner, there is no dialogue. The woman is putting out the cutlery and the meal, the man sits down and waits. The moment is quite mundane, yet it is obvious something is brewing. When the wife speaks, she delivers a bombshell – after 50 years of marriage, she wants a divorce. 

What follows is a very funny and at times moving exploration of a family in crisis and how each member tries to make sense of a marriage imploding. 

The curious and rather clever thing about this play is that despite being written in the latter half of the 2010s, it could have been set in the 1950s or even earlier because somehow feminism passed by this family.  They all mean well, but they have fallen into that age-old trap of establishing roles for one another, and those roles are pretty rigid.

Bill French (Roy Billing) is the stoic, grumpy patriarch and provider. Nancy (Annie Whittle) is his exhausted wife who is the archetypal caring mother who has never put herself first. Ben (Kevin Keys), is the firstborn son who casts himself as the family ‘fixer,’ the one who believes that he alone carries the family’s emotional and financial burdens. Brian (Todd Emerson) is the younger son, possibly the ‘spoilt’ one who claims to be concerned with everyone else’s needs, but who is incredibly self-absorbed. 

Added to the mix is Ben’s wife Jess (Beatriz Romilly), who in some ways is also a fixer, but being pregnant, is determined not to follow in Nancy’s footsteps. 

At the heart of the story is Nancy’s frustration that she ‘settled’ by marrying Bill and that neither he, nor her sons actually listen to her, or take her seriously. She is particularly upset that she has had to squash her real self and the vibrancy of her personality.

In one very hilarious but also poignant scene she tells Brian about an old flame, and the passion and sexual freedom she felt with him. He is horrified, and his reaction hurts her deeply. She tells him bitterly that all she wants is for him to see the real ‘her’. 

That one scene illustrates the unpleasant truth in many families – despite claiming a desire for honesty, few family members actually give it, or welcome it.

Despite claiming they just want to understand and hear her out, Ben and Brian spend a lot of time trying to shut Nancy down, invalidate her concerns, or show revulsion when she shares her truth

What’s clever about Grand Horizons is that it feels like a sitcom, a quaint and funny story of family life we can all relate to. But just as you feel comfortable, it hits you with some devastatingly sharp moments of heartache or blistering honesty. There are dark moments, and situations that remind us that as much as families are about love, they are also about deception, rivalry, and neglect. Unspoken desires can eat away at the fabric of a relationship. 

photo by Andi Crown.

One of the most touching moments for me was when Bill admits to Nancy what she means to him. It’s such a simple yet powerful moment, and it is the first time in five decades he’s expressed something wonderful about her. 

The production is pretty flawless. Not only is the script wonderful, and the staging gorgeous, this ensemble cast bounces off each other superbly. On stage, this bunch of actors is a family. They also know how to milk a moment for all its worth.

In the second half, there is a scene where Nancy is making a sandwich for Bill. It runs for several minutes, and the cast is completely silent and simply watching her make it. It was deliciously funny, and the perfect break from some earlier intensity.   

The premise and the characters are very familiar, they represent us all, the mother aching to be ‘heard,’ the father detached from his feelings, and a couple of siblings still embedded in their own egos. 

Every one of us gets sucked into family dynamics, no matter how old or mature we are. Watching this family on stage is like watching our own families. We’ve all witnessed or participated in pettiness, disrespect, and selfishness, and of course, shared with the love as well. Seeing this kind of dynamic unfold in front of you is kind of cathartic, it shows us that all families have a touch of the dramatic in them.   

Grand Horizons is a touching and funny reminder of the complex and challenging nature of familial love, and also, its redemptive power.  

Press play to watch a highlights reel of the show made by Auckland Theatre Company:


8 February – 5 March 2022

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