IT TAKES A special blend of creative fierceness, respect for the original and gentleness toward traditions established by a theatre over many years, to reinvent a great old chestnut with enormous success. The creative team behind this year’s iteration of Charlotte’s Web are not names previously associated with the National Children’s Theatre, but they’ve blown new wind into this delightful classic, in a way that will transfix your children and make you shed real tears over the deep values embedded in this work, which is about life and death, kindness to others and self-care in the off-the-wall association between a pig and a spider.
Some years ago, this theatre’s stage was set alight by a very young Emma Rogers, who gave the leads in A Pocket Oliver Twist (2011) and Annie Jr (2012), the refined and three-dimensional sheen they warranted. Gomolemo Tsosane in the singing and acting role of Fern, the little girl who saves the pig named Wilbur (Gamelihle Bovana) from an ignominious conversion into bacon, ham and pork, has a natural stage presence that evokes that of Rogers. As she emerges on stage as the sister of the rough and tumble Avery (Ronatan Botha), absolutely magic happens.
And it doesn’t stop there. Without the urge to Americanise the performers’ accents or to force too many Idaho idioms onto a South African audience, the threads of the story are kept clear and cause many a child in the audience to guffaw spontaneously – or even to sob – as the truths of mortality are trotted out with briskness and care but no crassness or folly.
This work’s creative decision makers have accented the gossamer of spider webs, and a whole rash of crocheted interpretations of the concept, rather than the eight-leggedness of the spider itself (as in previous iterations of the work), and while Lara Kleynhans in the eponymous role has a singing voice that is often not strong enough to have presence in contradistinction to the piped music, her delicate ballerina presence is exactly what the work demands, lending the character an understanding that is rich with value and one that never stoops to the literal.
And with a completely delicious and self-focused Templeton the Rat, played by Botha, and an ensemble team involving the mother goose and her penchant to repeat herself (Zoleka Monare) and the elderly sheep complete with big specs and a wig and frills which wouldn’t look amiss for a member of the judiciary (Jacques Adriaanse), not to forget a spot of beat boxing and some fabulously nifty choreography, this is a ten out of ten production.
But the cherry on top is the performance of Gamelihle Bovana in the role of the little pig himself, Wilbur. You may have seen Bovana in various roles at this theatre over the year: he’s been a lion and a bullied teenager, a pompous mayor and the irrepressible Mr Toad, to name but a few roles, but in this work, armed with great empathy for this character, he lends humour and realness to a character that can easily be flattened with simply ‘cute’ stage directions. Bovana’s Wilbur is a sentient being with a complex understanding of life, love, food and the presence of death.
It’s a work from which your child will take home something deeply discursive, in his or her thinking about the meaning of life and the value of a pig. It’s cut and styled to be tighter than earlier iterations of this work, but nothing is lost in the mechanics of a beautiful tale well told. The season is almost done, but this is a hands-down gem of a work. Don’t allow your children to miss out!
- Charlotte’s Web is written by EB White and directed by Coba-Maryn Wilsenach. It is performed by Jacques Adriaanse, Ronatan Botha, Gamelihle Bovana, Lara Kleynhans and Zoleka Monare with an alternating child cast comprising Tabatha Howard, Gomolemo Tsosane and Sekeata Talbot. It features creative input by Luigia Casaleggio (musical direction), Phillida Le Roux (choreography), Coba-Maryn Wilsenach (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. Call 011-484-1584.
- This review is premised on the performance of Gomolemo Tsosane as Fern.