School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

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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.
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Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

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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

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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

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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.

Victory in true style for Mr Toad

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OUT, damned opportunists! Mr Toad (Gamelihle Bovana) and his buddies save Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats. From left Badger (JT Medupe), Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and Mole (John Tsenoli). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

IF YOU GREW up under the spell of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, you will remember that there was always a delicious ferocity about Mr Toad, with his short squat body, his big toady eyes and his enormous mouth. It’s difficult to recall whether it was the wild yet sedate original illustrations of EH Shepard that conveyed this, or Grahame’s impeccable descriptions. Either way, and even if you are not a Wind in the Willows groupie, the fact is that Gamelihle Bovana in the title role of this production of The Adventures of Mr Toad conveys this fabulous mix of bravado and vulnerability, courage and sheer character: he’s a toad to melt your heart.

Indeed, Francois Theron’s rendition of this great classic about friendship and naughtiness, scary forests and bad weasels, as well as comforting cups of tea in moments of great stress and comeuppance for breaking the law, is one of those works which leaps off the stage and into your child’s awareness. For one thing, it is beautifully cast. The three fellows – the pedantic and short-sighted Mole (John Tsenoli), the adventurous and proper Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and the wise old Badger (JT Medupe), who has a low tolerance for misbehaviour – form a gorgeously formidable phalanx of dependable friends on which the maverick Toad can rest.

With a complex tale of adventure and prison, the hijacking of a 15th century manor by weasels and ultimate victory, it’s a work that features language that doesn’t patronise; while a very young audience might find some of the words unfamiliar, it’s a show replete with such a beautiful understanding of music and movement, gesture, colour and the rhythm of sound, that the story remains strong even if its subtleties are lost for the tots.

Structured around turn-of-the-century British properness, the adventure, focused on the lives of river folk is as anthropomorphic as possible. There’s a resonance between the costumes and concept that informed this theatre’s production of A Year With Frog and Toad some seasons back, and also an element of the hilarity that brought Martin Rosen’s interpretation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down to filmed life in the 1970s, where rabbits prate away like real English gentlemen.

The set, complete with utterly ingenious elements that are hinged on the horizontal and enable a whole landscape to be magically erected, embraces the work magnificently and with great simplicity. In the first half, we’re introduced to the foursome and get to understand the challenges of having the Toad, he of old wealth and inherited luxuries as a buddy: he’s a faddish bloke, who gets bored easily, but who also takes things to their giddy limit.

In the second part of the work, you will be swept off your feet by Senzesihle Radebe as the magistrate in full command, with a voice to match.

Beautifully structured and gem-like in its crafted quality, where all the elements fit together unmistakably well, it’s a play that is about the novelty of the motor car as it is about the majesty of Toad Hall. In short, this is a work which will leave you glowing with its unequivocal sense of humanity and decency as it balances with an unbridled sense of moral irresponsibility and naughtiness. An utter delight.

  • The Adventures of Mr Toad is based on the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring creative input by Piers Chater Robinson (lyrics and music), Neil Brand (musical arrangement), Clint Lesch (musical supervisor), Jodie Renouf Davimes (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes), it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Philip Hanly, Kirsty Marillier, JT Medupe, Garth Meijsen, Bradley Nowikow, Senzesihle Radebe and John Tsenoli, and three alternate children’s casts: Pascalle Durand, Christina Moshides and Keisha van der Merwe, Telaine Tuson and Naledi Setzin; and Emma Martin, Erin Atkins and Julia Johnson, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 23. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Nothing to fear, Gruffalo’s here!

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ONE roar and all resistance crumbles: Sisonke Yefele is The Gruffalo. Photograph by Nardus Engelbrecht.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you were all alone in a forest, with a yen for a nice big nut, and a knowledge that there were creatures for whom you would be lunch? A brave brown mouse, played by Nombasa Ngoqo captures the hearts and sense of adventure of little ones as she tricks the fox, the owl and the snake into believing she’s tougher than them in this South African version of the West End’s The Gruffalo.

It’s a-screech-a-minute scenario in a deep, dark wood, with the very young audience members, who love the “He’s right behind you!” sequences of shouts in this show, of which there are plenty. It’s a character which, penned by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler in 1999 in a storybook took the world by storm.

The Gruffalo – played by Sisonke Yefele – is a monster who’s quite easily frightened, in truth. He’s a madcap combination of various scary elements, such as horns and poisonous warts, deliciously potent claws and orange eyes, and the story’s largely about who can be more hilariously scared than who. It’s also a tale of friendship and trickster behaviour and an understanding of the soft spots of the monster you can conjure up in your mind.

Brought to fantastic life on stage with bright colour and intense sound, replete with a cuddly Gruffalo costume, it’s a rollicking bit of theatre which the littlies will know from their exposure to other levels of Gruffalo rhetoric. He’s everywhere, in the form of stuffed plush toys, games and songs. While the piped music often fights with the performers’ voices and you lose some of the work’s nuance in the lyrics, this is not a hassle for the toddlers on board, who want ultimate victory for the mouse and a chance to pat the Gruffalo himself.

  • The Gruffalo is a stage adaptation of the eponymous children’s story book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It is directed by Tara Notcutt and performed by Mandisi Heshu, Nombasa Ngoqo, Ayanda Nondlwana and Sisonke Yefele at Auto and General Theatre on the Square, twice daily, until May 7. Visit gruffalolive.co.za or call 011-883-8606.

At Sibikwa, there is always more

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THE sky’s the limit when you’re jiving in pink takkies. Children from Luyolo Primary School in Emdeni, Soweto. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the frenetic, sweaty joy of being in a theatre full of children, who are cheering their peers on, in the name of dance and drama, music and art-making. It lends an unequivocal sense of possibility to the ether. And this is not just Pollyanna values or shallow advocacy in theatre: Sibikwa’s annual Artists in Schools Programme ended today; being in the midst of the celebrants is not only humbling, it’s a real privilege.

The programme, in place for the last six years, and in association with the National Department of Arts and Culture, involves the deployment of 38 artists – who have been trained in the arts and in facilitation – in 38 schools across the Gauteng province. None of these schools have a permanent creative arts teacher, and the role of the Arts in Schools is to rustle up the innovation muscles in the children. It’s about intervention. It’s about skills transfer and it’s about positive impacts. So say the PR documents.

But when you watch the children sing and dance, when they explain what a musical canon is, when you watch the best of each artist’s school experience, strut its stuff in Sibikwa’s theatre premises in Benoni, you also realise it’s about a supreme sense of self. It’s about bodily confidence and it’s about fun. But there’s so much more.

Children from Vezukhono Secondary School, in Benoni, for instance, all dressed in black T-shirts and tights, articulate a work that is about loss and anguish, about sadness and disappointment, and when you look at these beautiful children, expressing the nub and texture of a community in disarray, you cannot but consider the pragmatics that they face in townships where their daily lives are fraught with enormous challenges.

Conversely, children from Kgalema Secondary School have taken apart and reworked the image of a painting by Irma Stern. The effect is disparate but fresh, the engagement with the material, real.

Will any of these children who’ve had a seed of art planted in their heads and hearts over the past six and a half weeks, develop into artists? It’s difficult – and unfair – to make predictions. But what Sibikwa, under the steerage of its co-founders Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba, is forging in this kind of context is something else. It’s that nebulous gift you give to a child when you tell them there’s more. More to life. More to their possible futures. More to who they are. More than what their impoverished circumstances tell them. Sibikwa, since 1988, has been one of those stalwart initiatives which has gone head to head with dire realities of abuse and poverty, illness and abandonment, and has created theatre that rides over the basic notion of advocacy theatre and into the true heart of what the arts are about.