Slab’s Pale Natives passes the test of time with distinction

The guys: Lionel Newton, James Cairns, Antony Coleman, Iain Paton and Ashley Dowds. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

The guys: Lionel Newton, James Cairns, Antony Coleman, Iain Paton and Ashley Dowds. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

  If you were white, young and English-speaking in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s in South African suburbia, you may’ve been privy to a particular lexicon of words like ‘tit’ (nice), ‘jislaaik’ (an expression of wonder), ‘kotch’ (vomit) and ‘boghouse’ (toilet). We were under cultural embargo. Apartheid was rife. The army had every young white man in its cross-hairs. And the culture of the time was tinctured by the bravado-filtered-hypocrisy specific to white South Africa in the run up to the first democratic elections in 1994. This alphabet of idiosyncratic values was embraced by playwright/performer Paul Slabolepszy; what a treat it is to see one of his classic dramas grace our stages again. Paying tribute to the late Bill Flynn who originally reprised the role of powder-blue-safari-suited Eddie, who whips up the comic element of the piece with astonishing savvy and is played now by James Cairns, this play is simply brilliant. It serves you a slice of nostalgia, rich with triggers to make you laugh, cry and remember, its sophisticated comic timing defines serious moments forever. Five guys in their mid-forties arrange a stag party. They were schoolmates 25 years ago. Each is a sensitively crafted, beautifully performed stereotype, which you recognise instinctively. Eddie is not overburdened, with his hilarious blend of stability, ineptitude and folly. He’s a rising damp specialist with a wife and kids. His earnest doggishness protects him from the nuanced bigger picture. Roux (Antony Coleman) is a loser to his fingertips, in his green shirt and striped wide tie. He’s living in his garden shed while his marriage crumbles. Ashley (Ashley Dowds) is the one who ‘made it’. Though he drives a flashy car, he has skeletons in his closet. With his combed, neatness, he’s the one you creditably picture as the boy who’d rather read than be in a rugby scrum. Many-married Dave (Iain Paton) is the foil for their party: it’s the eve of his third wedding. And then there’s Kyle (Lionel Newton). His teenaged swearing and fornicating credentials earned him his peers’ awe. Today, in a t-shirt under a dressy jacket, with his cigarette clasped between index finger and thumb, he reels from a life lived in the shadow of one-upmanship. Pale Natives is a coming of age story, not structurally very different from Cairns’ play ‘Dirt’. In crafting it, Slabolepszy held up a mirror to white South Africa on democracy’s cusp, rotten as it was with embedded racism and homophobia. He’s spiced heavily it with slang, an interface with local ad slogans and songs like Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, and others from the 1960s. In flaying open ordinary society, the play reveals poetry in the unlikeliest of situations. Not only about a stag party, it touches the core of life and death, success and failure. Armed with invectives against privilege, cigarette smoke and hard liquor, it never slips to sweetness, but runs with delicious fluidity that belies its two-hour length.

  • Pale Natives, written by Paul Slabolepszy and directed by Bobby Heaney is at the Market Theatre until May 11 (011)832-1641.
  • This review was first published by the SA Jewish Report: http://www.sajr.co.za
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