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Humble pig, terrific rat, painted spider

Charlotte

HERE, piggy, piggy, piggy: Wilbur the pig (Kyra Green), goaded on by the little girl Fern (Songezo Khumalo) and farmhand Lurvy (Graeme Wicks). Photo courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

REAL FRIENDSHIP DOESN’T always come in just any neat package, mostly. And the message of this lovely children’s musical, with honky tonk vibes and a cuddly spider who has painted nails will warm the cockles of your heart – and that of your child. Daniel Geddes does a fine job in directing Charlotte’s Web, a modern classic of children’s storytelling, if ever there was.

Headlined by its clever use of transparency and puppetry in evoking the spider’s web which is central to the best friend any pig, especially gorgeous little Wilbur (Kyra Green), could dream of, the work is stripped of Americanisms which might not be meaningful to a young South African audience. It’s a gentle and sweet piece as it robustly rises to the challenge of embracing difficult concepts such as death and the meat industry.

Unequivocally the highlight is Graeme Wicks’s interpretation of Templeton the rat. Most of the cast play different roles, and climb in and out of them with clarity and ease, and Wicks is also Mr Arable (Fern’s dad) and Lurvy (the farm assistant) but when he becomes this gluttonous, naughty and self-serving rodent, who lives off the pickings of others, the comedy stakes of this work are raised several notches.

Candice Weber is the spider herself, who spins words of support for a runty piglet otherwise destined for the pot, a threat which looms around every corner. And while the understanding of a spider puppet is a good one, and the use of thread on the web of mesh is delightful, her balletic energy and bows in her hair detract from the puppet itself. If you think back to Avenue Q – or even Ubu and the Truth Commission – you will remember the clean relationship between puppet and puppeteer: it’s so honed that you listen to the words of the performer and consider them to emerge from the fabric and felt — or wooden — mouth of the puppet. This doesn’t consistently happen here, which is a pity.

But it’s forgivable: the overwhelming baby cuteness of Wilbur, juxtaposed with the maverick charm of Templeton, and the delightful ensemble work of the whole cast make this a beautiful time spent in the presence of an important classic, about life, loss, love and all that matters.

  • Charlotte’s Web is based on the eponymous novel by EB White. It’s adapted for stage by Joseph Robinette and directed by Daniel Geddes. It features design by Daniel Geddes (musical direction), Charles Strouse (music), Willie van Staden (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes) and is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kyra Green, Songezo Khumalo, Danny Meaker, Candice Weber and Graeme Wicks, until October 7 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg. Call 011 484 1584.
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