Janaye Henry is already at home in the Basement Theatre when the doors open for Crush Season. She greets us as we file in, warm, beaming, doling out hugs to familiar faces, encouraging everybody to pick something up from the snack table. It’s a veritable cornucopia, complete with snack packs of every Bluebird chip flavour you could hope for, lollipops and other sweets piled high. Past the snack table, the set is dressed: a pastel-coloured sheet hangs down and extends toward the front row of seats, this floor space populated by several coils of ribboned pink cellophane. There’s a bright, similarly-pink neon sign to the right—Janaye, it reads. Then, further over, another table, which will hold books, The Bachelor-style roses, and more as the show plays out. True to Crush Season, Whitney Houston’s ‘How Will I Know?’ dominates the pre-show house playlist.
The show kicks off with a classic romantic gambit: Henry takes her place onstage with arms full of books. Books she then drops, books including a Rupi Kaur title and Tusiata Avia’s The Savage Coloniser Book (“It’s really good, by the way.”), books that an audience member is subtly—and then increasingly unsubtly—encouraged to help her pick up. Cue lighting, cue sound: all the conventions you’re trained to imagine. And once the audience member returns to their seat, Henry turns to the audience at large, hopeful romantic in full swing: “Wow, you just watched us form a real connection right now.”
Crush Season dips in and out of this storytelling mode—subtle audiovisual cues carry us across timelines to six weeks ago, to a frantic Italian dancefloor, to a long-game and ill-received Tinder well, well, well, to a dating show (where we eventually dip into ‘fantasy’, if it can be called that, and a historical figure enters the chat), to Janaye-at-intermediate-school being dobbed in it by her ‘ally’ Dad, who tells a boy she’s a serial backwasher. This particular story, in which the boy in question is apparently accidentally full-government-named, yields a uniquely Aotearoa result: a future in-law of his is in the audience. Henry seems to enjoy this as much as the rest of us do, and, at the end of the set, she dispenses with one of her roses, instructing that it be passed on to [Name Redacted]. (To be fair, with the Tauranga of it all, it turns out I’ve got my fair share of mutual Facebook friends with the guy, too.)
Henry is the perfect guide to take us through the wide-ranging content of the hour: natural, inviting, her delivery off-the-cuff. She makes us feel comfortable (in addition to the snack table, she uses the top end of the show to remind us that “If you need to use the wharepaku, just go and come back, that’s fine.”), which then allows us to go with her when things become, as per the genre, heightened. It’s a very well-assembled hour, too—just when you think something might have gotten too far away, there’s a callback that folds the layers around and in on themselves.
Henry also toes a comedic line and takes the turn I’m grateful for: while she invites us to laugh at the situations she’s found herself in (by virtue of her own decisions, or, occasionally, inclement weather on a television shoot), we’re never laughing at the expense of Past Janaye. I’m aware that might sound trite: we were laughing with the comedian, not at her, how lovely—but I think, when it comes to looking back on love, and romance, and crushes, and anyone’s pursuit of all three, whatever the form, it’s so easy to look back and cringe and let that be that. To try to distance oneself, for fear of being vulnerable, to avoid being the butt of the joke.
Don’t get me wrong: Crush Season is funny, but part of what drives that home is just how much we can empathise with Henry, and the fact she makes the choice not to disparage her younger self (or even current self) too heavily. Of course you break out the first well, well, well of your entire life when sliding into a long-term crush’s DMs; of course you meticulously time an accidental tampon drop to prove to a crush at school camp that you’re mature; of course you end up acting out an airport pat-down on a club dancefloor trying to live up to your aunt’s Eurotrip escapades. That’s what it is to live! And to love! (And—okay—you’re with me here, aren’t you?—to laugh!)
Crush Season is a glittering hour of storytelling, weaving through crushes, countries, glorious late-stage call-and-response. At the end of the hour, after Henry’s completed, yes, the closing number (dancing through the backdrop: “Can you tell that’s my butt?”), once the rose ceremony draws to a close, I take stock of the crowd. There’s something bubbling, there, not the kind of thing you’d usually find at 9 pm on a Tuesday. Something brilliant, and buzzing, and bright. We make our way out of the theatre, turning to our friends, giggling, conferring. It’s like the best bits, really, of having a crush.
Featured image courtesy of Janaye Henry and the NZ International Comedy Fest.