Arts Festival

A ribald tango down memory lane

TWO old friends, a keyboard and some sherry. Tony Bentel and Fiona Ramsay in The Old and the Beautiful at the Red Roof Theatre, AFDA, until April 2. Photograph by Martin Grendele.

STRIP THINGS DOWN to their bare basics. What do you really need to make a production that sings while it reaches boldly into the interstices of everyone’s heart? The Old and the Beautiful with Tony Bentel and Fiona Ramsay is a show that has seen many summers and one that has grown and evolved with the complex texture of friendship, the auguries of time and a maturity that allows laughter in the loopholes and fissures that the whole caboodle presents. Toss in a couple of props, a keyboard and some cheekily, slightly off-colour humour, and you have something complete. It performs at the Red Roof Theatre, Iyabuya iPop Theatre Festival until 2 April.

But the sense of completion of this work is not about a sense of finality. It’s about the delicious satisfaction that comes of seeing two well-heeled performers doing what gives them the greatest joy in life. Offering a glance at everything that comprises the rickety world in which we live and breathe, it’s about loadshedding and unemployment as much as it is about needing to be loved when you are alone and over sixty, as it is about the wisdom that a cat named Sloopy can bring to a cowboy. Irony and pathos ring and rumble together with wild aplomb. And there’s no room for easy cliché here.

Easily, this performance duo is one of the best in this country. Ramsay climbs chameleonically into the heart of each work she takes on, and veers from being an elderly inmate of a home in the Free State to a mere slip of a girl hoping that this lover will be the One. Her facial features meld and interface with the energy of the song she embodies in a way that is transfixing. And Bentel takes hold of the keyboard and lets it dance to the nuances in this simple yet complex work, which is as much about being loved as it is about having been on this planet for a while. It’s about war and peace and the vagaries of letting go. And it’s about the wonder of having an animal in your life.  

The Old and the Beautiful clocks in at just over one hour. It offers a peephole rich and detailed, into the prolific careers of both Bentel and Ramsay. They’ve known each other a long time. Their work, individually and collectively, has reached from Vaudeville to Broadway and back again. Disarmingly real in its directness, it is one of those pieces which, with a bit of tea-stained gin in the voice and some references to sliding off piano stools from enthusiasm, will grab you by the shoelaces and offer you a new sheen on all the sham and brokenness with which we operate every day.

Clever and wise, funny and sobering, it tosses many things into the mix, cocking a snoot at political correctness and the flaws in today’s ‘woke’ generation, as it casts nods and lifts eyebrows at everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Liza Minnelli and Rod McKuen, Barney Simon and John Oakley Smith, with a smattering of Steven Berkoff and a peppering of Bertolt Brecht, to name but a few. Without being pedantic or foolish, the work is a tonic. The kind of thing that will make you believe in the theatre industry from the inside out. Again.  

  • The Old and the Beautiful is directed by Janna Ramos-Violante and performed by Tony Bentel and Fiona Ramsay. Part of the Iyabuya iPop Festival at AFDA’s Red Roof Theatre, in Frost Street, Braamfontein Werf, it is on the boards until 2 April 2023. Book here.

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