Burlesque with a tot of cheap whisky


ETHEL in the snow with pop corn: Mark Hawkins in Heaven is Missing an Angel. Photograph by Eduardo Cachucho.

THEY TEETER INTO the theatre on high heels, with grotesque wigs askew and sparkly gloves, reeking of the kind of skanky, grubby ethos that defined 1980s Hillbrow or 1990s Troyeville in a very typically South African context. This is the cast of the first half of Heaven is Missing an Angel, this year’s Christmas revue brought to you by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins and Toni Morkel. We’ve seen them before in productions such as Doo Bee Boobies and a nativity play two Christmases ago featuring Jesus’ Greek granny in the form of Irene Stephanou with puppets by Margaret Auerbach. And in the absence of those performers, without Robert Coleman and his character Cyril (or that of Sheila Shler), the revue is slightly bruised but not compromised on the hilarious stakes.

Bentel’s lip sync of Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill’s 1968 song Stand By Your Man, complete with a hammer, heels and gift wrapped privates is as polished and as ludicrous as ever. While you don’t get to see Hawkins’s Denise with her cigarette smoking penchants and the surprises beneath her frock, you are privy to an aria between Morkel and a coq au vin, to say nothing of her lament about Father Christmas getting stuck in her chimney. And for a flying-in cabaret on the way to a library concert in the East Rand, as they explain the identity of this show, it offers a comment on the city getting R20 million, of which this cast earns R3,50, presenting a modicum of bitter truths slid in between the Gayle repartee and other drunken slurs.

The second half of the work presents Leon von Solms as Leyon, a rather precious singing character, in a blinding mask, accompanied by the lovely Trevor Harper on piano, with peculiar interregna of overhead sound which is meant to derive from heaven, but offers a context that presents a strange mix of spoof and science fiction, that isn’t always audible.

But clarity is not the point in this work where the cygnet dance from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, oft the gem in any drag show sees two men in tulle and green eye shadow, with an electric fan between them, looking glum and fed up for the duration of the famous tune.

Lampooning precious understandings of culture with hairstyles fraught with little birds, tossed pop corn that stands in for snow, and a hint of David Bowie with a soupcon of Liza Minnelli, the work is so terrible that it is fantastic, sliding into a genre all of its own. It’s not, however, for any audience member, and replete with lots of rudeness, a patent lack of structure and oft feeble improvisation, it’s as much an essay on being ‘ethel’ – or elderly – and lonely in a world fraught by a new generation, than anything else.

  • Heaven is Missing an Angel is conceived of, designed, written and performed by Tony Bentel, Trevor Harper, Mark Hawkins, Toni Morkel and Leon Von Solms at PopArts, Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg, until December 16.

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