Predicting a mysterious evening


Mystery surrounds a theatrical production on its way to Queenstown.

Mr and Mrs Alexander Present Sideshows and Psychics, which plays St Peter’s Church hall tonight, features the most notorious couple in colonial show business.

It tells the tale of their last show — before they disappeared.

There’s illusion, mind-reading and magic. The question is, is it real or simply a con?

The characters, played by Christchurch couple Lizzie Tollemache and David Ladderman, may be fictional but they’re based on real events.

Tollemache: “We’ve been fascinated by old accounts of these travelling entertainers. Medicine shows, variety shows and con artists who would come to town and pretend to be psychic mediums.

Research reveals many set up cons in small towns, often gold mining areas.

“It threw up some really interesting stories of colonial life in New Zealand,” Tollemache says.

“When you think of Victorians as a time period, you think ‘stuffy, old-fashioned and conservative’. But there was this incredible underbelly of crime and sex. All this is history that’s been forgotten.”

She doesn’t want to give too much of the plot away, but stresses neither she nor Ladderman claim to have psychic abilities.

There are some on the circuit who reckon they can talk to people’s dead family, taking advantage of vulnerable people, she says.

This isn’t their thing, but it is up to the audience if Mr and Mrs Alexander are the real deal or con artists.

Tollemache trained as an actress at London’s Globe Theatre, which is Shakespeare’s theatrical home.

Her move into sideshows wasn’t planned. One night a fire-eater dropped out of a show at the last minute and Tollemache stepped into the hot seat.

“Within a 48-hour period I went from being a regular actor to suddenly doing fire eating. I had to do a flight scene where I jumped off a two-storey roof and down this gravel slope. It all happened so fast and I came out of that show thinking ‘how can I go back to regular acting now?’”

The pair worry techniques from old-fashioned sideshow acts will be lost. Unlike acting there is no formalised place to learn the trade. You simply have to find someone that does it and coax them to teach you the trick.

Tollemache has found performers who hammer nails into their nose and others who have shown her the art of mind-reading. All of this helped with the creation of Mr and Mrs Alexander.

The pair will tour for six weeks, covering the length of NZ. Tollemache reckons it’s a great way to see the country and some towns she’s never even heard of and which rarely see theatrical productions.

This can make the audience more appreciative.

“There can be a jadedness that comes from an audience that is constantly exposed to a huge range of theatre and live performances.”

Mr and Mrs Alexander Present Sideshows and Psychics plays St Peter’s Church hall, tonight, 7.30pm. Tickets $25