Comedy's basis is no joke

Last updated 12:01 05/12/2013
STREWTH: Tim Bartlett feels right at home as back-country cockie Dickie Hart.

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Tim Bartlett will slip into a familiar skin when he reprises the role of Dickie Hart in Roger Hall's You Gotta Be Joking! The actor talks to Lauren Hayes about his adventures ahead of the show's New Zealand tour.

The doctor watches as a man shuffles into his office. Perhaps the man is shivering. He might be spluttering up saliva, or complaining about a pain in his right arm.

He could have a mysterious lump. It doesn't matter what the symptoms are. The doctor knows he's faking them all for cold, hard cash. Out of context, this sounds like the latest insurance scam, the sort of fraudulent scheme that would end up splashed all over the media. In context, it's nothing so sordid.

Tim Bartlett, a New Zealand acting veteran, is one of the men being paid to pretend he's ill. The whole exercise, he explains, is a test for eager young medical students.

Actors are given a disease - hypothetically, of course - and play along as the trainee doctor attempts to diagnose what the moaning man in his make-believe clinic is dying of.

"It's a wonderful job," Bartlett says.

"You need to react as appropriate and, of course, the doctors have no idea what they're coming into." Bartlett doesn't share what he was eventually diagnosed with. About to embark on a near-nationwide tour of You Gotta Be Joking! the actor probably has more important things on his mind.

You Gotta Be Joking! is the work of playwright Roger Hall, a comedy centred on the adventures of Dickie Hart.

For those who are unacquainted, Dickie is quite a character, a typical back-country cockie and someone who knows his way around a piece of No 8 wire.

Bartlett has portrayed the farmer before. This time, things are a little different.

At the insistence of the missus, Dickie has sold up the farm and retired, only to find himself alone in the big smoke when his wife takes off on a belated OE.

The audience follows along for the ride as Dickie forges ahead with his new life in a foreign urban landscape.

Bartlett promises laughs. Beneath the comedy, however, there is something more serious at play.

According to Bartlett, Dickie's experience is something many across New Zealand will identify with, as baby boomers reach retirement age and flock to the suburbs.

Men who have spent their lives on tractors, working with animals and against the weather, are waking up in a world of lattes and bus lanes.

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Culture shock should be expected. The modern New Zealand city, with all its hustle and bustle, can be a strange new place for farmyard natives like Dickie.

Bartlett himself has not experienced the shock, the actor admitting he has no rural background to speak of.

His sole bucolic connection, he says, is the small holding owned by his in-laws outside Geraldine.

"That's the only experience I've had. I'm a bit of a city kid, really, in that respect."

Bartlett didn't even have the luxury of a back country retreat to ease him into Dickie's rurally tinged life. Instead, he had to rely on his imagination as he learnt his lines in his living room, alone.

Fair enough - You Gotta Be Joking! is, after all, a solo show. And there are benefits to performing solo, Bartlett explains.

In a one-man show, actors have more freedom to push boundaries and test the limits of their capabilities. He's done it before and enjoyed it. There's just one major downside. "The cast parties are terrible."

Other ventures, most with many more actors on board, have seen Bartlett perform in some venerable New Zealand institutions: Shortland Street, The Hobbit, and the children's classic Playschool.

Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemimah and Manu, whose star has experienced a slight renaissance of late, are still household names to many people, but Bartlett is a little more reticent when it comes to his Playschool co-stars.

His favourites, he claims, were the toys that sat up by themselves for the entirety of a take.

"They had a terrible habit of just very, very slowly tipping over. Then you'd have to go back and do it again." It's not a frustration he seems to be experiencing as he prepares to be Dickie again.

Bartlett is comfortable to be back on stage as the character, talking of as he would an of old friend.

"He's a generous man, really, a lovely character," he says. "It's a nice show - it's a got a lot going for it."

  • You Gotta Be Joking! Theatre Royal, December 6, 7.30pm. Tickets $65+bf from Ticketdirect, ph 03 548 3840.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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