Hawkes Bay

Next to Normal in Waipawa


A grand old dame all dressed up

The grand old dame all dressed up for show night


An hour’s drive south of Napier, past the tiny settlement of Otane, the small town of Waipawa (Misty River, in English) nestles between the hills and the Waipawa river. It’s purportedly one of the oldest inland towns in New Zealand. And it is small, even by our standards – the population is only  1923 – up 48 people on the last census. Along the main street there are a few houses, of the humble variety, a petrol station, some shops, a supermarket, a small library, and a settler’s museum. Travellers in the know about the quality of the cafe might stop but most drive on through, probably believing this is just another dead or dying country town where nothing much happens.

But have I got news for you!

Waipawa is the home of the Waipawa M & D. What? I know, I know – the mind can go places I won’t detail here – this is a family blog and the Waipawa Musical and Dramatic Club is a family club. It’s run by volunteers. And each year they put on a musical show.

This year they staged the New Zealand premiere of Next to Normal. Never heard of that? Me neither – not until my sister, who has featured on this blog before, began talking about it. Somehow the club pipped NZ’s largest city, Auckland, population over 1.5 million, to the rights to the New Zealand première of this Pulitzer prize winner. That’s an achievement in itself.

Next to Normal is a rock musical. I like musicals, especially rock musicals. Jesus Christ Superstar and Tommy are favourites. Next to Normal is a musical about family breakdown, suicide, and mental illness. The Sound of Music it is not.

Every year when it’s show time my sister talks up the production. Every year I buy tickets and I go along. It’s always in the winter. It’s an hour’s drive in the dark and the cold. It’s all too easy to talk myself out of going but, you know,  supporting the family is good a thing to do. And every year on the drive home I rave about us kiwis, the way we  punch above our weight, even in Waipawa, and I wonder what the M&D club will put on  next. In fact each year I ask my sister that very question before walking out the door of the theatre. And she always replies: something that’s a bit different from this year. And then she gives that same secretive smile our mother used to give when she had a particularly delicious secret.

When the tickets went on sale for Next to Normal  my sister said I should go at the beginning of the season because, she said, I’d want to see it  again, at least once more. This, I thought, was nothing more than a desperate ploy to sell tickets.

I demurred. I put it off. I’m busy, lot’s on, places to go, children to visit, work to do, a blog to write. All of which is true – I wouldn’t dare lie to my sister, we’ve got into a lot of trouble in the past, her and I, from telling lies.

You’ll be sorry she said.

Humph, I thought. I don’t think so. I talk to a lot of unhappy people in my work. I don’t need to watch people act or sing about unhappy families. There’s no fun in that, I thought. And possibly so did a lot of other people. Sadly, the show didn’t attract the full houses it deserved.

We arrived in time to watch those who had bought dinner and show tickets eating their desserts. I can tell you the sight of others eat those scrummy puddings was a torture only minimally alleviated by a glass of Lime Rock Merlot. It sells  at Selfridge’s, London, for almost thirty pounds a bottle – my glass cost me $NZ8.00. Yep, sometimes life down here at the bottom of the world has it’s compensations.

For the first few minutes following curtain up I was gainfully occupied trying to assess which family member had the mental illness, while quickly realising the son had the best lines in a script chock-a-block with brilliant lines. And by the end of the opening song I knew I’d made a silly mistake waiting till the end of the season.

I don’t want to reveal too much – if you have the chance to see this show: Go! You will not regret it. (Although you have missed out on the top class, one of a kind  Waipawa M& D production – the final curtain came down on Saturday.) The writers, Yorky and Kitt understand families, mental illness, music and the business of entertainment. The two hours of show time seemed more like thirty minutes. The politics of mental health, including  the difficulty of determining effective treatment were sensibly and sensitively handled. I was only half-joking when I told my husband, afterwards, that in the event he ever finds me making peanut butter sandwiches on the floor (an early and pivotal scene) he is Not to call the doctor. He is to eat them and breathe not a word of concern.

And yes, not for the first time in my life and I dare say not for the last, my sister was right. I should have gone earlier in the season. I wanted to watch this show again. Still do. We sat up into the wee small hours of the morning talking about it, and about grief and life and a lot of other things besides. This might be a musical about the darker side of life but it  was life affirming as well. My favourite line sums it up: You don’t have to be happy at all to be happy to be alive.

I’ll remember Next to Normal at the Waipawa M & D for a long time and not because of the family connection either.  Or, not only that – I did get a great big kick out of seeing that my sister got an honourable mention from the director in the programme notes.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, when I asked about next year’s show, I got the same secretive smile I always get – so  unfair.


The theatre, itself, is an extra star in any production staged there. It was opened in 1910. It’s a small grand old dame, lovingly restored by the local community only two years ago.

Apart from the beautiful woodwork these iron railings are a feature. They  were boarded up during WW11 and hidden from the authorities. It seems that the people of  Central Hawkes Bay were a bit subversive back in the day. They valued beauty and craftmanship  over and above the war effort. Elsewhere iron was stripped from public buildings and melted down for munitions.

Eventually the war was won, the generations passed and the wrought iron was forgotten until some one  wondered what was beneath the hard board.

Apparently, like all old theatres everywhere,The Waipawa Municipal Theatre is haunted. Lights  turn on and off of their own accord, items disappear and reappear. How do I know? Inside info!

21 replies »

  1. New Zealand may be small in size and population but it is HUGE in talent in all fields of endeavour. Your post is a great review of the show, certainly I would love to see it if I had the chance.


  2. Hi Jill; you’ve made me want to go to Waipawa … now, if not sooner. I love small town NZ (possibly a reaction to spending too many years in Auckland) and fantasise about being part of a little community somewhere. Great post!


    • Hi Jessi,
      Welcome to my blog and thank-you for following. The theatre is beautiful and thanks to the restoration is used a lot. And, I’m looking forward to reading your blog over the next few days, too.


  3. What a beautiful theater! Thank god it was preserved vs. made into bullets.

    I work in Manhattan and Next to Normal was a very big deal when it opened on Broadway. Tickets were tough to come by here, too! Glad you got to see it.


    • Couldn’t agree with you more!! My photos don’t really do the theatre justice.

      I wondered if Next to Normal was huge on Broadway. I read somewhere that it’s quite rare for a musical to win the Pulitzer. Funny, when I think back over it I remember it in dialogue. And yet, there were many, many outstanding musical moments.


  4. Well said Jill – Waipawa Am Dram is always nothing short of sensationally professional. Interested about the Merlot being sold in Sainsburys too.


  5. I don’t’ know if you are in sales & marketing, Jill, but if you are not, you should seriously consider it. Your post has just persuaded me to travel all the way to NZ from Finland, just to see the show in Waipawa! 🙂


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