The generation game

MODERN GRANDPARENTHOOD: Roger Hall’s You Can Always Hand Them Back stars George Henare and Lynda Milligan, with Tom McLeod on piano.
MODERN GRANDPARENTHOOD: Roger Hall’s You Can Always Hand Them Back stars George Henare and Lynda Milligan, with Tom McLeod on piano.

Lynda Milligan is Cath in Roger Hall's You Can Always Hand Them Back. She plays a sweet and loving grandma married to an eye-rolling grandpa (George Henare), both of them beset by all the joys and tribulations of modern grandparenthood.

Roger Hall is in his 70s. Last year Milligan crossed the line from middle age to official pensioner. As usual, Hall is reflecting his peers and Milligan is one of them. She has aged with Hall and his plays and has been, or had the potential to be, the epitome of whatever he's homing in on. In her 30s, when young New Zealanders were wildly putting money into a ridiculously over-heated stock market, Milligan appeared at Dunedin's Fortune Theatre in Hall's The Share Club and, the year after the 1987 crash, in After the Crash. In her 40s she was in Social Climbers and By Degrees.

"In that I played the part of a woman who'd had a fling with a toy boy. I hadn't long broken up with my toy boy. It was almost like therapy, acting through it every night."

In her 60s, in 2011, she was in A Shortcut to Happiness, in which lonely people looking for love hopefully take folk dancing lessons. Milligan was in the age-group that does. "To some I could relate."

But perhaps nothing has been more relevant to her own life than You Can Always Hand Them Back. Hall had her in mind when he wrote it. He even asked her who she'd like to play grandpa, and Henare was her first choice. She'd been on stage with him before.

"Can I relate to it. Oh goodness, yes." She can relate to the longing to be a grandparent and fear that it might not happen, the excitement of the phone call announcing a pregnancy, the feelings the first time the baby is brought for a visit and the first time it's babysat, and the potential for conflict with daughters-in-law.

"The grandparents talk about a son and daughter-in-law overseas and my oldest son is over there with two grandchildren I'm almost a stranger to. I hoped in my heart when he had a family he would come back but he's married to a Scottish girl and she didn't want to leave the UK.

"And I live with my daughter and her partner and two grandchildren. I'm very much a hands-on grandma."

Her Christchurch granddaughters are 10 and two. "When I came to live here there was no talk of another child . . . another one changed the dynamics. One of the agreements was that when work came along I would do it. As you get older you want to make the most of opportunities."

You Can Always Hand Them Back looks at grandparental ageing, at growing frailties and changed living arrangements - "all relevant to grandparents today. It's funny, whimsical and a bit sad. All Roger's plays are relevant to real life. The audience go knowing they'll get the real thing. That's the way he writes.

"I just turned 65 last year. Age has never worried me. Some people are very cagey about it but I'm quite happy. Age is just a number. It's how you feel about yourself. Yes, in the theatre it matters. Mostly the roles become fewer. I'm lucky I can sing. I've been doing musicals all my adult life."

You Can Always Hand Them Back is a musical. On stage along with the grandparents is a pianist "who's happy to live in our living room. Most people have one, don't they? Don't you? The pianist sings and interjects and has a couple of lines to say here and there. It's a great show to do."

Soon after her first appearance as Cath, she played a very different grandma in another play at Palmerston North's Centrepoint, At the Wake.

"People came to both shows and said, ‘My goodness'. This other grandma is a swearing, cursing, blaspheming, drinking and smoking grandma. She was such fun. She said things I'd never said in my life before."

Plays like You can Always Hand Them Back, thinks Milligan, probably appeal in the same reflective way as movies like Marigold Hotel and Quartet with their mature stars.

"I know the audience is getting older. You see a sea of white hair out there and glinting glasses. I think they like seeing themselves on stage but they also like seeing young, beautiful people on stage."

Milligan has, in her long career, been in at least 80 productions at the Court theatre, in Christchurch, where she grew up and lives.

Her performing life started early. She was in church concerts at age three. "I've been singing in public since I can remember. I joined the Christchurch Operatic Society and that was my drama school really."

In between acting and singing jobs, which included some film and television work, she did secretarial work. "You're a lucky actor if you don't have to fall back on something."

Milligan intends to perform "as long as my brain's still together, I can remember my lines and I can still walk on stage. The first time I realise I can't remember my lines and I'm compromising other actors, I'll say no. That would be awful. If my brain and body hold up and I'm still capable I'll be working till I die.

"It's a disease, acting. All actors will tell you that."


You Can Always Hand Them Back, by Roger Hall, music and lyrics by Peter Skellern, Circa Theatre, February 23-March 30