He ain’t boring: he’s my sloth

Sparky

ALL in the family: Mommy (Genevieve Oliver), Libby (Boitumelo Phaho), and Sparky the pet sloth (Sandi Dlangalala). Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

WHAT DO YOU DO do if your mommy’s a work-from-home tax consultant who simply will not bend in the urgent and earnest quest to enhance the household with a pet? You can sing and you can dance. You can become furious and stamp your foot. You can cajole, pleadingly. And then, you can play by her rules and get the utterly unexpected. Sparky takes all of these values in a bunch, blends them with the most charming of laid back sloths (Sandi Dlangalala) and presents a perfect opportunity for young performers to shine with beautiful abandon.

It’s a very simple gentle story, with the cutes ramped up all the way, and the values clearly exposed. Sparky – not to be confused with the 1947 story Sparky’s Magic Piano – is an American yarn about accepting one’s own limitations, and working creatively within the parameters of authority. It’s about a little girl called Libby (Boitumelo Phaho) and her know-it-all friend Mary (Christina Moschides) and a quest to make sense of the world between hugs of a very cuddly and extremely lazy sloth.

Riffing and raffing it up in the wake of what young children might think animals should be trained to do as tricks, ultimately, it’s a crisply told story about the value and complexity of being a mum with commitments, of falling in love with an animal, and of learning how things work and how things are spelled. It’s a story of disappointment and delight and while it is a bit dated in the lyrics department – does anyone still know who Tony Danza is? – it’s tight, focused and together.

Both Phaho and Moschides, young performers though they may be, exude a confidence, an understanding of characterisation and a sense of rhythm that far surpasses their age limits. Offset against the comforting performances of Genevieve Olivier as the mommy and Gareth Meijsen as the school teacher, the work exactly hits the mark for the three-to-six year olds for whom it is designed.

It does remain curious, however, as to why young parents still insist on bringing their under-three-year-olds to the theatre; this play is created for little ones, but not utter babies, and the toddling presence of someone who is still in nappies and cannot yet engage with the experience is not only cruel to the littly in question, but idiotically selfish to the whole audience. It’s clear you think your baby’s brilliant – he’s yours after all. But trust the theatre professionals on this, and bring him next year, or the year after.

  • Sparky is written by Jenny Offill and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Jodie Davimes (choreography) and Stan Knight (set) and is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Gareth Meijsen and Genevieve Olivier with three child casts: Group 1: Elektra de Melo and Tannah Proctor; Group 2: Christina Moschides and Boitumelo Phaho; and Group 3: Erica Harris and Neo Thokoane, co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha, at the Wynnstay theatre, National Children’s Theatre complex in Parktown, until December 23. [This review is premised on a performance which featured the children in Group 2]. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
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Scrooge! Glorious Scrooge!

Seussified

WHAT a little turkey for Christmas! So says Mrs Cratchit (Nieke Lombard) and her husband, Bob (Alessandro Mendes), feeling the pinch, courtesy of Scrooge. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT DO YOU do with a fine and classical tale of Christmas told in Dickensian language, if you want to add a bit of sprite to its shenanigans and a bit of verve to your audience engagement? That’s easy. You Seussify it. So says American theatre-maker Peter Bloedel with his pen as much as his passion for things that make the name Dr Seuss shimmer with recognition, eclecticism and general cartwheeling madness. This fine and beautifully directed work offers the whole package –  with a sniff of classical Seussical self-deprecation, in rhyming couplets, electric green hair and hilarity; and a glut of Dickensian shlock.

It’s all rolled together by a delicious team of performers and designers, under the directorial eye of Francois Theron with Daniel Geddes adding a twinkle of choral energy while he also performs the main character. In short, A Seussified Christmas Carol is everything you would expect from Dr Seuss, and from Dickens, only more, because you get both for one ticket.

The charm, delight and flippancy departments in this work go full out in giving linguistic faux earnestness to the idea of Seussical grammar, and they don’t stoop in showcasing the talent of Blaine Shore. A newcomer to this theatre, his stage presence — be it in the role of Old Fesswig, the dead Jake Marley or other characters — is bold and clear and lends an energised, camp, fleshed out and nuanced insight into the insanity of what Seuss means to his fans.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the kind of bloke that offers insight into why Christmas is a time of goodwill to all beings, kindness and joy to the world. And that’s simply because he’s the utter corollary. With his fingerless gloves, his elaborate dressing gown and his penchant for real miserliness he embodies the notion of meanness down to the tips of his slippers. And who’s he mean to? Bob Cratchit (Alessandro Mendes), for one – his loyal employee. Bob’s a man who has the short end of the stick, but sees it all as a half full glass. Is he simple? No. He’s kind. And he’s poor.

Stepping aside from the notions of Victorian poverty as reflected in Dickens’s 1843 Christmas chestnut, Bloedel injects the kind of rhyming charm which would enthral Dr Seuss himself, and you get delicious, bold and well-formed performances from everyone, including the child performers on board, collectively ramped up with the presences of electric green hair, Seussical red and white stripes and wild, almost callous hilarity. While some of the articulation is not as clear as it could be, the gist of the work is upheld with the kind of Seussical tempo that first put the National Children’s Theatre on most people’s must do lists close to 10 years ago.

With inventive and hilarious language that pokes fun at many things, both historical and contemporary, it’s a tale of an emotionally short-sighted man, four ghosts and the value of holding a mirror up to one’s heart. It might make your heart brim over a little, but it’s all in a good cause.

  • A Seussified Christmas Carol is written by Peter Bloedel and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Daniel Keith Geddes (choral arrangement and vocal direction), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes), Stan Knight (set construction), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davids, Jessica Foli, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard, Nomonde Thande Matiwane, Alessandro Mendes and Blaine Shore, in collaboration with three alternate children’s casts co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha: Group 1: Joshua Hibbert, Onkagile Kgaladi and Vuyile Zako; Group 2: Brayden Steenhoff, Kaih Mokaka and Shayna Burg; and Group 3: Asher Steenhoff Paidamoyo Mutharika and Aaralyn Muttitt; and understudy Erin Atkins. [This review is premised on the performance featuring Group 2] until December 23 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484-1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
  • There are currently three productions on the boards right now, which deal with Charles Dickens’s great classic: this play, A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here, and the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

From the mouths of babes

thwala

SINGING to make the world feel beautiful. (from left) Violet Ledwaba (partially obscured); Tisetso Masilo; Zinhle Mnguni; Sakhile Mlalazi; Luyanda Mahlangu; Surprise Seete and Nyiko Kubayi. Photograph by Adriana MC

WHEN YOU KNOW there are children in the cast of a staged work, you instinctively lower the parameters of your expectations. They’re not professionals, after all. Theatre’s a difficult thing to do, if you’re a child. And it’s a truism that the fact of children on stage means that the mommies and daddies in the audience are the ones to whom it is addressed. But when you see Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi’s Thwala, you realise from the get-go that this is simply something extraordinary and you will be swept away by the muscularity of the performances, the wisdom implicit in the work’s structure and quite simply the value and ethos of this story.

Comprising an all-girl cast, aged between 11 and 16, the work conveys a simple and bold story about a pastor taking sexual advantage of little girls who live in an orphanage. Already it’s a focus that seems too complex and too sophisticated – not to mention too disgraceful – for these angel-faced children to be confronting, and yet, tragically, this kind of story is par for the course, given what contemporary youth have to face all the time, in this day and age.

While the performers, led by Sakhile Mlalazi as Sebendzile Skhosana and Amehle Mene as the priest are completely wonderful in their sense of self, their sense of cohesion with their peers on the cast and their understanding of character, full credit is due to Dlamini and Mgeyi: the staging of the work, the use of props, which are drawn by the cast, the discipline of the cast and the sense of context they present is exceptionally well developed.

The priest gets his comeuppance and the young girls’ headscarves are uses to represent not only a sense of female modesty but the bars on the prison, in a poetic touch. And in telling all of this, in an amalgamation of languages, the work doesn’t miss a beat: a marimba band lends the work its soundtrack and singers and a chorus add to the energy and fire generated here. It’s not a happily-ever-after fairy tale, but one coaxed into life by the horrors that are endemic to our society, playing very directly into the focus of the #metoo movement.

Will these young women, who put many a professional stage production in this city to shame, get to see professional careers on the back of a university degree in performance? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. With their socio-economic context, it is not a given that the expense of higher education in a field such as drama is something that any of them will be able to take for granted.

While you might weep at the beauty of their understanding of characters bruised and torn by corrupt figures of authority, you need to reflect on the potential future of these girls. It bodes well for the possibilities of theatre in this country, and serves to lend a very developed reflection on what projects such as the Hillbrow Theatre’s Outreach Foundation continues to do. But this is no pity party. Whatever happens in the future of these children and this initiative, the magic seeds that engender values and creativity have been sewn. The seasons of Thwala have been brief, but there deserve to be many more in the future of this production.

  • Thwala is directed and created by Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, in collaboration with the cast who are from Centurion College. It features creative input by Bigboy Ndlovu (choreography), Themba Moyo (musical direction), Gcebile Dlamini and Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi (costumes), members of the cast assisted by Gift Dube and Benjamin Sambo (set) and is performed Neliseka Malinga, Thobeka Malinga and Hope Mwenda (voice coaching) and is performed by Nyiko Kubayi, Violet Ledwaba, Luyanda Mahlangu, Tisetso Masilo, Amehle Mene, Sakhile Mlalazi, Zinhle Mnguni, Hope Mwenda, Bontle Ndlovu, Nthabiseng Ndlovu, Tumelo Nkoele, Gugulethu Nxumalo, Aminathi Radebe, Surprise Seete and Pearl Segwagwa, supported by a marimba band, comprising Matham Fokane, Pearl Mmamorare, Bridget Moyo, Abigail Skhosana and Ukho Somadlaka. It performed in the Inner City Drama Schools Festival in August, the Drama for Life Sex Actually Festival in September, and was hosted by Drama for Life at the Emkhaya Theatre, Wits University between November 3 and 5. The work is hosted by the Outreach Foundation at the Hillbrow Theatre. Call 011 720 7011 or visit outreachfoundation.co.za

School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

lionwitchwardrobe

NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

Tiger

OH, mummy, he’s hungry! The Tiger (Jonathan Raath), relishes the remains of dinner, delighting and shocking Sophie (Pascalle Durand) and mummy (Louise Duhain). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if a great big orange, stripy tiger was an unexpected guest at your mummy’s tea table? Like the other tots in the audience, you would undoubtedly be blown away with an excess of cuteness, fluffiness and delight, and forget about the practicalities of feeding a very hungry beast, even if he has mostly dashing manners. The National Children’s Theatre is rapidly honing yet another feather in its proverbial cap, by developing work that caters to the 2-5 age group, and they’re doing it with utterly professional aplomb.

The stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, directed by the inimitable Francois Theron is spot on in terms of the collaborative energies of the piece. Eight-year-old Pascalle Durand as Sophie, the child for whom this orange-striped extravaganza happens, shimmies like a real professional. She carries her role with directness and dignity and her singing voice is like a little bell, loud and clear enough to inspire joy into the hearts of the oldest and most craggy of curmudgeons, let alone the babies in the audience. Above all, she collaborates with the grown ups on the cast as a real team member. This is a child to watch.

The story is gentle and direct, espousing a 1960s normalcy that is about daddy (Kefilwe Mohlabane) going to work in a suit and tie, mummy (Louise Duhain) doing mummy things such as shopping and cooking, and Sophie enjoying the variety of delights that comprise her life, from receiving a kitty in the post to joking with the milkman (Jonathan Raath), and watching the tick-tock of the clock as the day passes.

The Tiger (Raath) in his head-to-toe costume interrupts things, but he’s a very welcome routine-quasher. This brightly coloured work with brilliant black and white props that do not pretend to be the ‘real’ thing, represent a perfect introduction for your littly to the make-believe magic that theatre offers. Clocking in at 45 minutes, and featuring some dance-along activities and some “He’s behind you!” intrigues, it’s a work that is just right for the little tiger in your life. The question must be posed, however, as to whether, like this theatre’s recent production of the Library Lion, audience members can anticipate an isiZulu or perhaps an isiXhosa tiger at their tea table, in the near future?

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is adapted for stage by David Wood, based on the eponymous book by Judith Kerr. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jodie Davimes (choreography). It is performed by Louise Duhain, Kefilwe Mohlabane and Jonathan Raath and an alternating child cast of Zoe Buitendag, Pascalle Durand and Luca Teague. This review is premised on the performance featuring Pascalle Durand. It performs at Wynnstay, on the National Children’s Theatre campus in Parktown, until August 20. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

A house for every mouse, and every mouse in his house

ratrace

PHONING mum: Ameera Patel (top) and Roberto Pombo (bottom), articulate a tale of stress in the working world. Photograph for CuePix by Megan Moore.

IT’S NOT EVERY day that you discover a blend of the wit and wisdom of a Greek fabulist from antiquity with the dynamics of pop-up book technology, all infused into a South African context. Rat Race takes the fable of the town mouse and the country mouse, originally penned by Aesop some time before Christ, and yields something totally delightful, which your one year old will respond to with utter glee.

It’s a beautifully made piece in which Miles (Roberto Pombo), the chap who is based in the grit and stress of Jo’burg, meets Melissa (Ameera Patel), she of country air, compost, bicycle rides and chickens which must be fed. Blending puppetry and innovation, minimal diction with shapes and surprises, Rat Race is the kind of work that will hit the ‘funny’ button every time, for your sproglet. Particularly when Miles, the mouse with scant rural savvy encounters the chickens and believes them to be monsters.

It’s an allegory about the value of meditation and the horror of stress, and one that is about following your heart and cheating your fears. It’s told with a sophisticated understanding of the littlies in the audience, their attention spans and the things they will remember. First prize, however, must go to the set of this charming little work. Comprising a fabric construction on wheels which contains all the colours and decoupage, patch work and shapes that you can imagine, it’s a show which will make you think of Fisher Price toys in terms of how well it is designed and how there’s a hook or a container for every little element to the work.

And while there’s a sensibility and witty extrapolation on the day-to-day stress which we as people in a town context encounter and internalise, there’s several developed asides about the vagaries of living in the country – what, for instance, you get to boogie to, in a world where all you do is sweep, cycle, breath and sleep.

A tale of sunshine and being on the road, apple trees and window box flowers, this gentle work about love and the idea of home will worm its way into your child’s heart, and yours.

  • Rat Race is based on the original tale of Town Mouse and Country Mouse by Aesop and it is directed by Kyla Davis. It features design by Christelle van Graan (costumes) and is performed by Ameera Patel and Robert Pombo, in the Downstairs Theatre at the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University, on July 16 at 15:00. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook. Other children’s shows at this year’s Wits 969 Festival include KidCasino! and Space Rocks.

Let your little ones reach for the stars

spacerocks

UP, up and away: Jojo (Lunga Mofokeng), the science teacher (Sithembiso Khalishwayo) and Jinks (Stella Dlangalala) head upwards. Photograph by Sakhile Dube

A FABULOUS NEW element to the Wits 969 offering is a slot for children’s theatre, and this year, the festival pickings, hot off the Grahamstown circuit, features no less than three productions suitable for the next generation of theatre patrons. Space Rocks is a kaleidoscope of fact, fiction, allegory and invention, to say nothing of good moral values, that have everything to do with brushing your teeth and being nice to your brother/sister, and it will keep your child riveted – that is, if he or she is older than the time frame  of 4 to 8 years, suggested by the work.

It’s a rip-roaring tale of an adventure into space on an improvised space ship, by two children, Jinks (Stella Dlangalala) and her kid brother Jojo (Lunga Mofokeng). And while the wrench from the values of the mother (Earth) played by Diana Penman are big and real, there’s a whole splendid world of adventure waiting for them in the night sky. There’s also the scary danger of Vortex and Void, in which they can become lost or totally discombobulated, but there’s a wise and fine selection of morals and songs, hypnosis and seduction that happens on the way. Not to forget Mr Bing Bing, a robot toy who comes along for the ride and gets first prize in the space adventure stakes.

It may be all too much for your four year old – replete as it is with a heady mix of lots of planetary fact and fondly formed humour, including a whole gamut of fart jokes on the part of Jupiter who reeks of gases, amongst other space oddities, but if your tot is the kind of kid who can easily get mesmerised by the gentleness and excited by the shoutiness, the silver foil and delightful lyrics of a work, they may be able to happily bypass the nitty-gritty of the sense of the narrative and hum along. Indeed, the ensemble of this production exudes a collaborative energy which speaks not only of planetary sanctity and good wishes for the future of Earth, but good clean inventive fun, to boot.

Space Rocks in its design is a work that boasts rethinking everything from teabag strainers to bicycle pumps, and it features some utterly delightful shadow puppetry and a sequence of events which is resoundingly clear as it is satisfying in its unfolding.

  • Space Rocks is written by Tamara Schulz and directed by Craig Morris. It features creative input by Tamara Schulz (costume and set) and is performed by Lehlonholonolo Dube, Stella Dlangalala, Sithembiso Khalishwayo, Lunga Mofokeng, Thapelo Mohapi and Diana Penman, in the Nunnery at the Wits 969 Festival, Wits University, on July 16 at 11:00. Visit webtickets.co.za or visit Wits 969 on facebook. Other children’s shows at this year’s Wits 969 Festival include KidCasino! and Rat Race.