UNEQUIVOCALLY DARK IN its condemnation of the hypocrisy and divide in society, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was penned by Robert Browning in 1842. Like Charles Dickens’s work, it holds a strange kind of magic which makes it understood to be for children, but the message is grim and the issues terrifying. It takes a very special directorial hand to be able magic all 303 lines of the famous poem, in rhyming couplets into a context that is fresh and locally relevant and appropriate for young audiences. This is what you get in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of Pied Piper. Bearing the unmistakable mark of Francois Theron’s artistic magic, the story of corruption and economic divides, of rats and a magical being who knows more about children and their contexts, and music and its value than the stuffy old wealthy blokes do, simply sparkles.
Couching the tale in a South African context, where the mayor (Gamelihle Bovana) is self-contained and filled with air, twiddle twaddle and blah-blah-blah, to say nothing of a lack of empathy and too much self-love, the work centres on the street kids, who have nothing but make do. Gugu Dlamini embraces the role of the lame boy who is something of a hero, articulating the truism that each person has their own talents and tasks, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with what anyone else does or can do. Dlamini’s theatrical robustness lends her presence and credibility, enabling her to carry the work’s local back story in conjunction with Browning’s.
And with the wonderful child performer, Pascalle Durand as Sam, the work has a texture and a local sense of integrity that enables earnest and delightful asides, keeping you focused on the children but not compromising the plot. Durand is a delightful child with unabashed personality. She embraces her role completely, and of course, there’s the adorable factor too, but this young lady grabs the soul of her performance (and you in the audience) simply and directly by the heart.
It’s an adventure like no other, with nuggets of service delivery protests, comments of local status quo and real dreams of South Africa’s homeless, tucked into its interstices without being crass or silly or hurting the flow of the work. Songs framed by chestnuts from The Sound of Music, or part songs that children still sing, have been wonderfully reworked with lyrics that fit the story, and the set is just completely astonishing – offering a magical yet real sense of space, geography and texture.
Pied Piper resonates like a National Children’s Theatre classic: it’s local, it’s informed, it’s innovative and it will leave you – and your child – with the kind of energy and optimism that a tonic brings.
- Pied Piper is written by Robert Browning. Directed by Renos Nicos Spanoudes and Sarah Barlin, it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Gugu Dlamini, Danny Meaker, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson and Kopano Tshabalala, and a child cast comprising Group 1: Pascalle Durand, Kesiah Irvin, Lwazi Ntombela and Gomolemo Tsosane; Group 2: Shayna Burg, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi and Matthew Ruzsnyak; and Group 3: Erin Atkins, Kefilwe Gaborone, Tebo Moahloli and Hloniphile Myaka. This review is premised on the performance of Group 1 with the cast. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical directions), Sibusiso Nhlapo (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Mike Koenig, Yo Mama and Daniel Simion (sound effects) and performs until July 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484 1584.