Oh, father!

Huddled together, the three basement bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Huddled together, the three basement-bound sisters in Father Father Father (from top) Roberto Pombo is Sonya, Joni Barnard is Lucy, and Rachael Neary is Marcy. Photograph by Ellen Cherry.

Take three sisters. Clad them in severe black lace tops, white skirts and insufferable black tresses. Cast around them a vague tale of a missing father, an ever-absent black horse and tuna crumbs. And put vulgar hysteria and arbitrary cruelty into their mouths and souls, and you will have what amounts to Father, Father, Father, a collaborative work which might make you question the value of driving to downtown Johannesburg.

Horror and cruelty are interesting elements to depict onstage. They’re a bit like showing sex: the more that’s implied, the sexier it is. The more that’s shown, the more ridiculous it can become. Father, Father, Father treats all those potentially fascinating notions of mental illness, sinister intent, horror and pain with as much subtlety as a blunt instrument deployed by a hefty child. The work lacks tonality or nuance, and its consistent off-key-ness makes it lose impact.

These three sinister girls would work honed into a vignette in a larger story. They make you think of Dickens’ Miss Haversham, or Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or the mad woman in Jane Eyre, played out and touched upon by their respective authors with a great sense of wariness, leaving you, as the reader, or the audience to deal with your own horrors in conjuring up these scary women.

Film director Stanley Kubrick achieved this with split second extreme horror in his 1980 film The Shining: there are twin girls in that tale who have screen presence for maybe four seconds, but whose impact lasts a viewer a lifetime.

All this wisdom is missing from Father, Father, Father: instead we see everything about Sonya (Roberto Pombo), Marcy (Rachael Neary) and Lucy (Joni Barnard) and very little of it hangs with conviction, savvy or sophistication. There’s too much screaming and running about. Too much bald cruelty and no back story.

If you’re past the age of believing in the value of blunt scariness, you might feel you’re too old to see theatre of this nature. With a sniff of Chekhov, a poke at narratives of abuse and a whisper at Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Father, Father, Father is the kind of play that makes you wish this theatre auditioned work with greater stringency before they presented it to the public.

It lacks convincing narrative, a meaningful denouement, and above all, a sense of balance. The story is a roly-poly display of too much guttural emotion with no evidence of strategy or beauty. And the use of the piercing scream is the clincher: rather than tilting at genuine scariness, its potential to disturb factor sways toward the deeply annoying and you may find yourself edging to the exit before the play finishes.

Father, Father, Father is conceived, written and performed by Joni Barnard, Rachael Neary and Roberto Pombo and directed by Toni Morkel. It enjoyed a four day season at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg during November.

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