No Taste Forever! photo (c) The Bacchanals

once we built a tower
by dean parker

I know! it seems very unusual that we'd already be featuring reviews for Once We Built A Tower on this website mere days after the closing of its first season, especially when we haven't put up anything for plays from 2011 onwards! but hey, we had a day off and really wanted to ensure that there'd be positive stuff about our current show here so you can make an informed choice about whether to see it when it tours later in 2014! Laurie's review originally appeared in the print edition of The Dominion Post on 14 March 2014, and John's on (yes, go on, click that link, even though his site hasn't got a link to ours, like we don't exist or are just some bunch of amateurs!!).  Kris' review (not sure if we're allowed to use her real name in case her online and reallife selves are meant to be different people!) appeared on Rose's review appeared in print and online at  Do these make you want to see the show?  Hope so, because it Will Be Back! UPDATE SOME TIME LATER: it was back! we had a super time in the South Island in August/September 2014 with more performances of Once We Built A Tower.  Ross Somerville's review originally appeared in the print version of The Labour History Project, bulletin #60, and Alison Embleton reviewed the show in Dunedin.  Her sister Meg let three complete stranger-Bacchanals crash at her place a week earlier as they passed through Christchurch, hence final statement.  If funding gods are kind to us, Once We Built A Tower will return again in 2015 and 2016! 


Once We Built a Tower is a thoroughly entertaining, good old-fashioned musical documentary in the tradition of Mervyn Thompson's Songs to Uncle Scrim and O Temperance! It is performed with the usual warmth, simplicity and gusto that David Lawrence's Bacchanals bring to their shows. 

The play pays homage to a forgotten hero in the establishment of our welfare state in the 1930s, Dr Gervan McMillan (played by Alex Greig), who chaired the Parliamentary National Health Insurance Investigating Committee in 1936.

But before he became an MP he was formulating and putting into practice his socialist ideals about medicine, medical insurance and the hardships brought about by the Depression while looking after the workers in Kurow who were constructing the Waitaki Dam.

The first act deals with his growing political influence in the religious beliefs of the Rev. Arnold Nordmeyer (Michael Trigg) and his socially timid wife (a touching and funny performance by Brianne Kerr). In the second act their fervent idealism comes up against implacable opponents, the Treasury, the Medical Association, and some of the members of the Labour Government Cabinet.

Sounds dull? Far from it. Apart from an overlong debate between McMillan and the Medical Association (Jean Sergent) the production moves swiftly and ingeniously through the years with period songs (‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' / ‘It's Only a Paper Moon'), rousing anthems (‘Jerusalem'), comic patter and mimes, corny jokes, running gags (wet handshakes), and scenic effects created out of about forty battered suitcases, which are used to make the dam, swing doors, workers' huts, and a tower amongst other things.

Though it is not in any way underlined the unspoken message is crystal clear. The current Labour Party isn't what it used to be and has lost its idealism and drive, and the bland current political parties of both the Left and the Right lack vision, and, as Dr Gervan McMillan says at the climax of the first act "without a vision the people perish."  - Laurie Atkinson, The Dominion Post


It's only on until Saturday, it may or may not tour suburban halls, so book now. 

The prolific Dean Parker has here penned a salutary reminder of the values the New Zealand Labour Party was built on. It is full of surprises and The Bacchanals have done him proud with a dynamically committed and highly entertaining production.

Think ‘The Welfare State' and most of us credit Michael Joseph Savage with its implementation. Think Arnold Nordmeyer and most of us (who even know the name) think of his ‘Black Budget' of 1958.

Who knew the true architects of what grew into ‘The Welfare State' hailed from Kurow; that it began there in The Depression with a doctor, Presbyterian minister (and a school headmaster, by the way) envisioning a free health system for all, based on what was happening with the Waitaki Hydro Scheme dam-builders (see, for example, artist Bob Kerr's online exhibition: The Three Wise Men of Kurow).

It was Dr Gervan McMillan who got the Labour Party conference to adopt their plan as policy in 1934, and in 1935 he and the Presbyterian minister, Arnold Nordmeyer, were elected as members of parliament when the Michael Joseph Savage-led Labour Party swept into power. (I expect headmaster Andrew Davidson's role in creating the Waitaki medical scheme – the seed from which the nation-wide scheme grew – is left out of this play because he didn't stand for parliament). 

Popular Depression era songs – ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime', ‘Paper Moon', ‘Pennies From Heaven' – plus a rousing rendition of ‘Jerusalem' are well integrated and beautifully sung by the ensemble; indeed director David Lawrence (guitar, banjo, clarinet) and violinist Ellie Stewart back much of the action with an excellent live musical soundscape. The whole cast provides a portentous heart-beat effect too, which is mostly effective but could be better modulated in some parts. 

Old suitcases - a rather hackneyed prop in theatre and dance, sometimes – are given a new lease of life with some very inventive utilisation, from humble huts to church doors, and would better represent the dam itself, I feel, rather than the junk assemblage currently used (no set design credits so I guess it's a group effort).

While the workers are settling in to their Awakino camp, refusing to live in tents but having to put up with freezing huts all the same, Dr Gervan McMillan is flirting outrageously with his patient Ethel, History Mistress at Nelson Girls College. Of course she gives up her career for his, and will go on to become a member of parliament herself in his wake, which provides the play with its epilogue.  Alex Greig and Kirsty Bruce make a splendid couple, anchoring the play in the McMillan's essentially real relationship.

The workers' wariness – to the tune of a sting from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, which becomes a wittily recurring motif – at the arrival of this couple is one of a number of effectively-staged non-verbal sequences. Very rarely does the play lapse into dramatised lecture but when social and historical information is imparted, the audience ‘need to know' renders it welcome. 

The Nordmeyers are also splendidly played by Michael Trigg and Brianne Kerr, and the evolving Frances Nordmeyer / Ethel McMillan relationship is another important anchor point in the production. While Kerr's rather dotty Frances is the comic highlight of the show, her rather eerie insights into the Māori history of the region add an enriching dimension to the whole.

Michael Joseph Ness brings a charismatic ebullience to his Savage namesake, initially, then when the economic chips are down, he comes through with a hard-edged pragmatism we will all recognise from contemporary politics: it was ever thus. A great deal of this story is very relevant to current political debate.  

I do find myself puzzling over the intransigent insistence of McMillan and Normeyer that the Consolidated Fund must pay for their proposed increase in the Old Age Pension, en route to establishing Universal Superannuation, when the Waitaki medical scheme was set up by the workers themselves and paid for by a levy from their wages. But such battles have always centred around “Where will the money come from?” – especially where collective responsibility for each other's wellbeing is concerned.

The cabinet scenes make for powerful theatre. So too do the confrontations between McMillan and the Medical Association, personified by Jean Sergent with a no-nonsense Scots accent. Their final and major debate, however, could do with some modulation so that we see beyond the performances to the guts of their arguments more effectively. But such issues will doubtless be resolved as the premiere season progresses. (Again I feel the need to note that elsewhere in the world such ‘epic' theatre would be run in over a series of previews.)  

Joe Dekkers-Reihana also goes Scottish as Peter Fraser; Aidan Weekes comes into focus as Walter Nash; Hilary Penwarden does good service as an Engineering narrator when needed; Charlotte Pleasants has some excellent moments representing the ordinary worker; Alice May Connolly offers an unlikely and rather bizarrely interpolated Robin Hood.

As an ensemble the company delivers an exemplary piece of political theatre in the populist mode, utilising comedy with great proficiency while ensuring the key points get made and provoking us to have a good think – in this election year – about the values and visions we want our politicians to stand for. “Without a vision,” as McMillan keeps saying, “the people perish.”

Some of the Bacchanals actors bring the same performance persona to whatever they do while others have the skill to honour the playwrights' vision of specific characters with appropriate physical and vocal characteristics. This latter approach – for my money – better serves the work, our understanding and our interest in it.  

This is the third Bacchanals world premiere of a Dean Parker play, the previous ones being Slouching Toward Bethlehem (about Robert Muldoon) in 2011, and his adaptation of Nicky Hager's Other People’s Wars in 2012. We can o in 2012. We can o in 2012. We can only be grateful such a strong and fruitful relationship exists.

“We hope this won't be its only season & we'll be able to take it to some church halls & community centres as the year continues (got $40k you don't need? give it to us!!),” writes David Lawrence in his programme note. Let's hope that happens. A season at the too-often dark Hannah Playhouse would be good to see too. - John Smythe, Theatreview


The latest Dean Parker play (with songs! and live music!) performed by The Bacchanals follows the lives of Ethel and Gervan McMillan, and Frances and Arnold Nordmeyer. Gervan and Arnold played active roles in the Labour government’s introduction of a welfare scheme in 1938. It looks at circumstances that influenced their thinking on welfare, then the fight they had to get those ideas accepted by the government. It’s a fascinating look at the origins of an ongoing political and societal issue.

I think this is the best ensemble work I’ve seen The Bacchanals do. They are adept at the comedic scenes and grounded for the serious scenes. One of the things I like about them is that they’re constantly playing with the audience as well as each other. There are winks during some prop wrangling which invites the audience to be part of the experience. This production is anchored by excellent performances by Kirsty Bruce (sassy as Ethel McMillan), Brianne Kerr (sweet as Frances Nordmeyer), Alex Greig (alternately cheeky then serious as Dr Gervan McMillan), and Michael Trigg (appropriately righteous as Arnold Nordmeyer.) Michael Ness delivers a stirring speech as Joe Savage.

Tight ensemble work, a lively and engaging two hours of overtly political (music and) theatre in election year. - librarykris, The Wellingtonista


Once We Built a Tower is the latest in a run of brilliant Bacchanals productions lighting up the Wellington scene. The element which shone throughout this and several other recent productions by the same company – The Clouds, Gunplay, All’s Well that Ends Well – is the witty and engaging spirit of the cast. The script itself, written for this production by Dean Parker, is a wordy and repetitive one; however, moments of real joy were found in the set design and manipulation, and the joyful play between the ensemble actors.

The narrative follows “the building of the Waitaki hydro-electric dam near Kurow in the late-1920s and how its revolutionary medical scheme helped the 1935 Labour government create the Welfare State we take for granted today” ( Although this made for a challenging and relevant piece of theatre (it is, after all, election year), this political theme did weigh heavy in the atmosphere of the theatre, and was driven home a little too hard during our second act. What began as heartening political common-sense campaigning by likable, charming characters, slowly became scene after scene of frustrating political warfare which, although realistic, was, for one audience member, “a bit too shouty”. Although the themes and messages were of value, towards the end of this two-hour production, the atmosphere descended into chastisement over provocation, a fault which I think lies primarily in the script, but still let down this brilliant production.

The set, consisting almost entirely of old suitcases, was clever, versatile, and made for beautiful scene transitions and play between actors as they threw them back and forth, built their homes and a dam from them. This basic set was brought to life by the beautiful voices and instrumental music of the players throughout, which appears to be a common theme in Bacchanals productions, making them an absolute joy to watch.

Our protagonists – Kirsty Bruce as Ethel McMillan, Alex Greig as Dr Gervan McMillan, Brianne Kerr as Frances Nordmeyer, Michael Trigg as Arnold Nordmeyer, and Michael Ness as Michael Joseph Savage – served us well with consistent, energetic and often comedic acting, which helped the pacing of this wordy piece. The supporting roles, from Alice May Connolly, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Hilary Penwarden, Charlotte Pleasants, Jean Sergent and Aidan Weekes, were fantastic as always, with charming play, quick wit, clear delivery, and a great sense of enthusiasm in their performances. It is not often that in a production where you watch four separate actors poo on stage, the air is still endearing, especially given that we watch another cast member shovel their wares away immediately afterwards.

This is not your last chance to view this production, however, as there are murmurs of an upcoming tour of the show, which I would recommend to any politically minded theatre-goer as a tight, charismatic piece by a well-respected company. Overall, this show was interesting and compelling, primarily due to the skill of the players, and the endearingly small-time beginnings of the protagonists. Pre-show and interval entertainment was jubilant, and special mention must be made of the hilarious performances from Brianne Kerr, Michael Trigg and Jean Sergent in these breaks and throughout the show. Musicians Ellie Stewart, Hilary Penwarden and David Lawrence were wonderful to listen to, and added to the production without distracting from the main action, which is a credit to any ensemble. - Rose Cann, Salient


I had a great time at Dean Parker's piece of agitprop. I was immediately reminded of Rachel Barrowman's evocations of the People’s Theatre in her book A Popular Vision and of course of her biography of Ron Mason. I never imagined I would feel I was in the house with them, but that is what it was like.

It was a totally 2014 experience, with modern songs (to some extent) and a clear thrust toward the issues of inequality that ought to be the focus of our thought in election year. But it was theatrically delightful, with added charm and resonance for someone for whom the names of Arnold Nordmeyer and Ethel and Girvan McMillan still meant something, even if only distant resonances from an upbringing in a liberal Presbyterian minister's household in Dunedin. I'm in no position to judge whether the ideas of universal medical coverage and superannuation were really engendered by the circumstances of the hydrodam project at Kurow in the late 1920s, and judging from the photographic evidence (in the Dictionary of NZ Biography) DG McMillan and his wife Ethel—let alone Nordie—were not nearly as pleasing to the eye as their Bacchanalian personifications, but the impassioned speechifying and amazing physical energy of the performers made you wish it so. Joe Savage with an appropriate Australian twang, and a Scots Peter Fraser, with teeth that glinted ‘like moonlight on atombstone’ were more than shadow puppets on the stage.

It wasn't entirely satisfying—Frances Nordmeyer was rather simplistically rendered for cheap effect, and at the end it felt as if the ‘message’ had been diluted by detail. Still, in election year, this was a most entertaining and edifying reminder of the values that ‘Labour’ used to stand for, and which struck a chord with the audience. Let's hope it isn't solely preaching to the converted. The Bacchanals are a wonderful experience, whatever they are performing. The atmosphere they create, their singing and dancing, their infectious energy and inclusion of the audience in the most unthreatening and unpretentious way is utterly winning. - Ross Somerville, Labour History Project



“They used to tell me I was building a dream…”

Dean Parker's latest theatrical offering, Once We Built a Tower, brought to life by the undeniably fabulous Bacchanals ensemble, is a striking political narrative – perfect for an election year.

Centred around a forgotten hero in the establishment of our welfare state in the 1930s, Dr Gervan McMillan (Alex Greig), the play shares the story of his political beginnings and subsequent influence and collaboration with local Presbyterian minister Arnold Nordmeyer (Michael Trigg). Both actors play their roles with charm and convincing political fervour, and their various eccentricities mean there is never a dull moment.

Both Kirsty Bruce is a steely and quick witted Ethel McMillian, and Brianne Kerr as the timid yet endearing Frances Nordmeyer portray splendid political wives, each politically minded in their own way. Their characters help flesh out the main story line and give a voice to wider society.

While providing care and guidance for the labourers and their families during the building of the Waitaki dam, and witnessing the subsequent hardships brought on by poverty during the Depression, McMillan and Nordmeyer are moved to share their socialist ideas about subsidised healthcare and pension funds with visiting Labour Party parliamentary hopeful, Joe Savage. (A rousing speech from Michael Ness has me wishing I could vote for him on September 20)

Once in parliament, McMillian and Nordmeyer butt up against the Treasury, the Medical Association and some of the members of the Labour Government Cabinet – all of whom seem reluctant to put into play the welfare they promised in their election platforms.

The cast is without a weak link, Joe Dekkers-Reihana, Hilary Penwarden, Jean Sergent and Aidan Weekes all play various roles throughout. They never let the energy drop for a moment, constantly engaging with each other and with the audience. Using battered suitcases and a few props, the cast works together to create everything from labourers' huts in Kurow to the Waitaki dam. Their physicality and creativity as a team is a wonderful thing to watch.

Subtle music guiding the rhythm and mood of the play continues throughout thanks to the talents of Ellie Stewart, director David Lawrence and Hilary Penwarden. The play is also punctuated by depression era musical numbers sung by the entire cast which helps to build on the community hall style/people for the people aesthetic. Not to mention they will stick in your head long after you leave the theatre.

“Brother, can you spare a dime?”

Part-funded by grants and donations, the entire show is performed for ‘koha'. The cast has been pedalling the production around the South Island, giving a delightful theatrical treat to some of the New Zealand's lesser known nooks and crannies – something very few ever seem to do.

Their passion and belief in a better political system is a powerful thing to see brought to life on stage, it is rare to be so engaged and swept up in idealism for an entire performance. I wish I could see it all over again.

If Messrs Greig, Ness and Trigg were the driving force behind today's Labour party, I would feel far more inclined to cast my votes in their direction. (I also have it on good authority that The Bacchanals are some of the most excellent house-guests imaginable.) - Alison Embleton, Theatreview


reviews   photos

upcoming | history | people | reviews | cats

The Bacchanals Home

The Frogs | Othello | Wealth and Hellbeing | The Jew of Malta/Titus Andronicus/Volpone | Hamlet 2002
Crave | Twelfth Night | The Bacchae | Romeo and Juliet | A Midsummer Night's Dream | Hate Crimes
Measure for Measure | I.D. | Hamlet 2006 | King Lear | A Renaissance Man | 1 Henry VI | No Taste Forever!
Slouching Toward Bethlehem | Julius Caesar | Other People's Wars | Coriolanus | The Clouds
Gunplay | All's Well That Ends Well | Once We Built A Tower | Blue Stockings
Richard III | Lysistrata | A Christmas Karel Capek |

Last modified May 2020, bitches! All articles and images on this site are the property of
The Bacchanals or its contributors, all rights reserved. Bender is great! Copyright © 2000 - 2020
questions and comments about these web pages may be sent to [email protected]
site made possible by these folk