New Zealand actor Mark Wright loves nothing more than hopping on the tour bus to visit some of the smallest theatres, so he could not pass up an opportunity to join the cast of Ladies Night again, he tells Rebecca Fox.
Given his popular starring roles impersonating Ruth Richardson and Richard Long in McPhail and Gadsby shows years ago, not to mention a certain advertisement, maybe it is not surprising.
But Wright has never called himself a comedian. Instead he sees himself as an actor through and through.
Yet he has been seen on Dunedin stages over the years in productions ranging from Bouncers in the 1980s, the Rocky Horror Show with Tina Cross and Ray Woolf in the 1990s, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Roger Hall’s A Way of Life in the 2000s.
"I’ve toured the length of New Zealand many times in my career. I’ve done it all, musicals, Shakespeare, Kiwi drama."
The stage was where Wright was always headed after making his debut in a school play at the age of 8, then starting Saturday morning acting classes and heading to Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School.
After graduating he began working in professional theatres, including the Court in Christchurch, Circa in Wellington, Centrepoint in Palmerston North and the Auckland Theatre Company.
"It’s my first love, to be honest."
One of his first professional acting gigs was in another noted New Zealand play, Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament at Centrepoint.
Yet he ended up working in television for quite a few years after being cast in television shows Peppermint Twist and Shark in the Park.
His television comedy work began in 1987 when he voiced some of the puppets in sketch show Public Eye before joining the cast of LaughINZ with Rima Te Wiata and Mark Hadlow.
Then came his recurring role as Nigel Whitechurch in the Billy T. James Show and joining the cast of David McPhail and Jon Gadsby’s 1990: The Issues, an election year sketch comedy series. It continued in various formats for another four years as Wright perfected impersonating famous faces, such as Bill Ralston, Richard Long and Ruth Richardson.
"I’ve won two New Zealand Film and Television awards for my work on TV, so that’s what people recognise me for."
Wright has also done some movie work over the years, such as comedy Cops and Robbers, teen drama Alex and doing voices on Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles.
People also remember him for the Oddfellows television commercials where he appeared alongside his impersonations of Tim Shadbolt, Rachel Hunter, Tim Finn and Ruth Richardson.
He returned to television comedy in the mid-1990s with That Comedy Show, Comedy Central and Newsflash.
In the past seven or so years, Wright has returned to the stage working again in professional theatre.
"I think I’m a better stage actor than a television actor. Stage acting is a completely different type of acting because you've got to get it right on the night, because people pay their money on a Tuesday night just like those who come on Saturday night, unlike film and television where you get it right once and it’s recorded or filmed."
During the second Covid lockdown he "finally got off my butt" and wrote a one-man show about Gallipoli, which he also directs and produces, as well as being set and lighting designer. He plays nine different characters, which he has been performing around small-town North Island.
"A lot of people come along expecting to see funny, wacky, oddball Mark Wright and obviously there is humour in it, as there is humour in times of war. I make them laugh and I make them cry — that is what good theatre is about."
It has been well received, he says. The challenge seems to be to get people along to it initially, as it is not a topic that attracts a lot of women, who are the ones who "drag their husbands" to theatre in this country.
"I received one of the best reviews of my career from a woman reviewer saying it was a ‘must see’ show."
He is also working with Harry Sinclair and Don McGlashan on an animated children’s series set in prehistoric New Zealand. He gives voice to six characters in the series, which was recently nominated for a Bafta.
So Wright, who has also been heavily involved in theatresports over the years, jumps at any opportunity to hit the stage, such as the current tour of New Zealand with Ladies Night, New Zealand’s most commercially successful play of all time. Written by Anthony McCarten and Stephen Sinclair (Harry’s brother) in 1987, it went on to eight sell-out tours of Britain and to win The Molière Prize, France’s premiere theatre award for comedy.
"I’ve heard somewhere in Europe there is a production every year."
He has seen five productions of the show, which have attracted a who's who of New Zealand acting over the decades, including Dave Fane, Robbie Magasiva, Michael Hurst and the late Kevin Smith.
"It’s why I jumped at the chance of doing it. I’ve always wanted to be in a production of it."
It is Wright’s second Ladies Night experience, having played Gavin, the hospital orderly, at Centrepoint, at the end of lockdown in 2020.
"It was just what Palmerston North needed at that time after the Covid lockdown, was to just go out and have a good night out."
The key to the show’s popularity, he believes, is Kiwis’ ability to laugh at themselves.
While Ladies Night is often claimed to be the country’s "sexiest comedy", because at the end of the show the main characters do strip, the main storyline is about a group of unemployed guys on hard times trying to make a dollar or two to support their families, he says.
"Good ole Kiwi DIY, can-do attitude, they decide to give it a crack — it’s that conquering of adversity in hard times."
Even now, 36 years after it was written, it is still selling out theatres. In Palmerston North, Centrepoint even extended its season.
"The town totally embraced it. A lot of the audience who come to see it recognise their husbands, boyfriends or sons, they can relate to these guys."
The latest production touring New Zealand also features Mike Edward (Shortland Street, Power Rangers, The Brokenwood Mysteries, Spartacus) playing head stripper Barry, and Step Dave star Jono Kenyon (My Life Is Murder, 800 Words, Go Girls, The Hobbit) playing the hustler Craig, while Andrew Ford (Shortland Street, The Pickle King, Jeeves and Wooster) plays witty hospital orderly Gavin. Former Commonwealth Games gymnast turned actor Reid McGowan (Power Rangers) plays nervous Norman while Dion Murphy (The Strip) plays Wes, a commercial cleaner and Frith Horan (The Brokenwood Mysteries, Hillary) plays professional dancer and ex-stripper Glenda.
"It’s a mistake to think it’s a strip show. There are some heart-wrenching moments in it, the guys dealing with their relationships. There’s some ugly stuff.
"By the end of the show if we’ve done our job right the whole crowd is rooting for the guys to succeed; they become cheerleaders for the guys."
This time Wright plays Bernie, the ageing, sleazy nightclub owner whom he describes as a "villain and bigot".
"Gone are the days where I could play one of the guys who strip, I’m past that now. The reason I played Gavin was he’s so bad at it he’s funny in the audition, so the choreographer takes him aside and suggests he MC the night, so I didn’t have to strip."
Touring has its own challenges for the actors who often roll into town, set up, perform, pack up and then the next day hit the road on to the next destination. They are sometimes in the van for up to six hours a day.
"There is no chance for the audience to build, as it were. People have only one night to see it."
It also means the actors have to be careful to look after their voices and the cast members who strip also have to attend to their diet and exercise regime.
Wright believes it is important to have New Zealand plays like this one telling "a quintessential Kiwi story and taking it to the people it is about".
With very few professional theatre companies left in New Zealand, Wright loves touring productions to communities that would otherwise miss out.
"I really enjoy it. Getting out and meeting New Zealand public who supported my television career all those years ago."
Ladies Night shows in the South:
- Glenroy Auditorium, September 26
- Civic Theatre Invercargill September 27
- St James Theatre Gore, September 28
- Oamaru Opera House, September 29