Bouncing and bounding onto stage in choreographic sequences — designed by Shelley Adriaanzen — which are satisfying to behold, is a fabulous young cast, telling a tale as old as time itself: The inestimable sadness of being different in a world where your greatest desire is to fit in with everyone else. And, not a story about a misfit duck or a child who’s smaller than the rest of them, but along the same themes, it’s a plea, with autobiographical undertones from playwright Julianne Moore that would warm the cockles of the hearts of most people, especially South African artist Anthea Pokroy, who has created a considerable body of work on the issue: to be red-haired and freckled really does distinguish a child from the rest of the pack.
Armed with caveats like “you don’t have to be the best at what you do, but you do have to love it,” the play, directed by Francois Theron, could very easily have slipped into silly schlock, but it retains its frisky freshness, against an ingenious set by Stan Knight. The cast of young adults, including relatively heavy-weights in the industry, Sarah Richard, Abel Knobel and Sihle Ndaba as well as Marike Smith, in the lead, clearly take what they are doing very seriously and in turn yield a delightful product, which is good on the eye and sweet on the heart.
Strawberry is seven years old. She has just learned to ride a two-wheeler, she’s losing some milk teeth, and she loves who she is and how she fits in to the general scheme of things in her world. That is, until her world realises that she’s different from them. And the ensuing teasing bruises her. Badly enough to make her want to hide from the whole world. There are some bizarre sequences in which she is chased by a band of evil freckles, and a give and take of characters and actors that flesh out an understanding of Strawberry’s domestic life. And ultimately a denouement in which Strawberry learns to embrace herself with gladness.
With deliciously stand-out performances by Smith as well as Dale Scheepers, the work also features demurely lovely and unaccompanied songs sung by Sarah Richard. The only draw-back in this utterly lovely bit of young people’s entertainment is the fact that Sihle Ndaba, a performer with an absolutely exquisite voice, as fans of Seussical Jr and Kwela Bafana will attest, doesn’t get to shine. She remains one of the company and her unique voice never does reach beyond that of her peers.
You’ll need a couple of tissues handy in this frank and articulate reflection on childish cruelty, self-hatred and embarrassment, but will leave the theatre a little lighter, a little happier.
- Freckleface Strawberry, with music and lyrics by Gary Kupper, based on the books written by Julianne Moore, is directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor), Shelley Adriaanzen (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Emma Victoria Hayden, Abel Knobel, Sean Louw, Sihle Ndaba, Lindi Niemand, Sarah Richard, Dale Scheepers and Marike Smith, and is playing at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 20 (011)484-1584.
- A version of this review appears in the current week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report (www.sajr.co.za)