Dirty Work: Singing in praise of the unsung hero

By: David Barrington (NZ Herald) Tessa Rao in a yellow pant suit hugs Catherine Yates tight who looks uncomfortable in a cleaners outfit

In these wintry post-Covid times we could use a little joy.

Thankfully it’s waiting for us at Auckland’s Q Theatre on Queen St in the form of Dirty Work: An Ode to Joy.
Dirty Work is a production by beloved Kiwi theatre company Indian Ink and writers Jacob Rajan and Justin Lewis, the team that gave us Krishnan’s Dairy, Mrs Krishnan’s Party and Paradise: Or the Impermanence of Ice Cream.

Each Indian Ink show comes with its special surprises. This time, the audience is treated to a different choir every night, made up of non-actors who have no idea what is in the script.
The work is a comedy that finds a hero where we might not expect it, among workplace politics (and an office flirtation) and half a dozen familiar songs.
A trio of performers are front and centre of the show: Justin Rogers as less-than-competent middle-manager Neil; Tessa Rao as his second-in-command Zara; and the office cleaner Joy, played by Catherine Yates and a pair of false teeth inherited (figuratively not literally) from Jacob Rajan, who has deployed the prop in his own performances for Indian Ink and is present in the play via a Zoom call as company boss Vijay.

They are backed up by the choral singers who perform during the play’s musical numbers and double as the office staff.

Twenty-five-year-old Rao was approached by director Justin Lewis specifically for the part.
Born in Wellington, Rao grew up in Hawke’s Bay and later studied her craft at the American School of Dramatic Arts in West Hollywood before Covid cut that short and she returned to New Zealand with a new appreciation for her homeland.

Since arriving home she has starred as the Green Ranger in Power Rangers: Dino Fury before jumping at the chance to work with Rajan.
“It is a privilege to work with Jacob. He is an incredibly smart actor,” she says. “He always has thoughtful ideas to add and I am learning from him all the time.”

While the play is hugely funny and the music element adds a feelgood factor, it does, as with all Indian Ink works, carry some deeper messages. Lewis suggests the play asks us to find joy in whatever we do, even if it may feel like the drudge of work. “It’s the Sisyphean task of pushing a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down again,” he says. “Work can be repetitive and it’s a big part of our lives but we should find some enjoyment in it.” Dirty Work also tells us that while we all might be caught up in our own personal stuff, we should never overlook those around us in spite of our seeming differences of class or places in a hierarchy.

“It holds a mirror up to ourselves and gives a message we don’t often think about enough,” Rao says. “It starts with us. We need to be giving and sharing, not taking it all for ourselves even though it may feel as though it’s in short supply sometimes. “People bring more than their job description tells us … we couldn’t do it without each other.”

The collaborative effort is on display in a brilliantly performed montage scene, in which Zara and Neil share an imagined romantic day out over the space of a couple of minutes, backed up by a rousing performance from the choir. Dispensing with dialogue, the pair mime through a sequence which takes them on a fun-filled excursion of first-date moments.
That scene evolved during the rehearsal process with input from the actors and director. “It became one of my favourite parts of the play to be involved in,” Rao says.

Rao says the play and the three lead actors’ performances have all evolved since opening night.

Rogers’ physical comic performance as the hapless manager trying to impress his boss and motivate his staff is as brilliant as it is daft, and Yates’ beautiful voice and presence carry the quieter moments with emotion and humour.

Rao’s character is responsible for the show’s key moment of tension – a moment she says she feels a real sense of shame every time she performs it.
“We often don’t think we are the villain,” she says. “We have our own reasons for believing what we do, even if we find out the truth is different.”