Same differences, different sameness and the glory of being seven

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SAGE advice of a wise mommy: Megan van Wyk and Kirsty Marillier see the other side of freckles. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre

There’s an almost audible click, that the audience can hear, when performers in a show collaborate with a generous and real spirit of enthusiasm. And there’s almost an audible click when a cast sings with a production, not only in the literal sense, but also because they really get it. The rarity of both these things happening in a production takes your breath away because it is flawless: Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is a simple tale about bullying and friendship which is told with a deft directness, a sparkly sense of self and a true spirit of collaboration, enabling everyone on the creative team to give of their very best.

Led by Kirsty Marillier, who is cast so perfectly, she has the whole stage in her hand from the get go, this delicious little tale of the horrors and pleasures of being different takes you immediately into the rough and tumble of a seven-year-old context. It’s a story of bicycle riding and the tooth fairy, of gentle malice born of observation that is enabled to grow into something wretched, and of dreams that little boys and girls are allowed to have. While it is a little heavy handed on how the idea of marriage and babies represents unequivocal success, everything else about this autobiographical tale rings real, and the work never teeters into utter saccharine.

We’re all a little bit of a Freckleface, with our personal idiosyncrasies and our silent envy of other people’s perfections. This play very beautifully embraces those insecurities which are part of the human condition, with the interlocked narratives of eight children and a baby brother who wears a colander (Brandon Loelly), sparked into life with dreams and nightmares, the advice of a wise mommy and the part time sanctuary of an itchy woollen mask. It’s about vocalised ambitions to be the best and unspoken ones about fearing that you’re never good enough, and conjoined with its lyrics and its choreography, this production fits with as satisfying a ‘click’ as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

And everyone, literally everyone – Teekay Baloyi, Megan van Wyk, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radedbe, Brandon Loelly and Megan Rigby – simply glows in this work. The crowning skill remains in the hand of director, Francois Theron because no one shines brighter than anyone else, and the flow of the story is delicate and robust enough to bring its message across. While the eponymous little redhead remains at the front and centre of the tale, she remains one of the kids in the best possible way. This rendition of the play – it was performed at this theatre in 2014 – will leave you with a different understanding of your own differences, but also with an awareness that you’ve just witnessed something deliciously perfect.

  • Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is written by Julianne Moore and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervision), Shelley Adriaanzen (original choreography), Phillida Le Roux (staging), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Brandon Loelly, Kirsty Marillier, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radebe, Megan Rigby and Megan van Wyk, it is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until April 13. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za/
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The wisdom of Pippi

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WHAT: Me worry? Not a chance. Pippi (Yarden Dagan) confronts the establishment: the welfare officer Mrs Prysselius (Sandy Bota) with the cops, Klang (Graeme Wicks) and Kling (Marvin Molepo). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

NOËL COWARD ARTICULATED it first in his 1935 song: Children on stage are complicated. They haven’t the work ethic of professionals. They can lose their hold on their character when they recognise people in the audience. Their parents can be the thing that pushes them into the limelight. They can grow irritatingly precocious, show off and bruise their role. But when you discover a child capable of graciously sidestepping all those clichés, you’ve got to hold tight: Eleven-year-old Yarden Dagan captures this spunky maverick with a maturity beyond her years and an ability to seduce the audience which simply makes this show fly.

Not that the adult casting for this work is shabby or lacking in any way. Indeed, headed by Luciano Zuppa, who plays an utterly delightful Captain Longstocking and Thunder, one of the incompetent crooks; and Sandy Bota, as the inimitable Mrs Prysselius who blends prissyness and bossiness with a real ability to jive, the work is bold and beautiful and beggars comparison with the version that this theatre produced some years ago.

It’s got to do with the magic ingredient of the children themselves, and the astute wisdom of the play’s director, Francois Theron, to know when and where it is appropriate to cast the littlies. This Pippi Longstocking is a sheer delight: in terms of how the work engages the audience, how the child herself is able to give this naughty little girl who was invented in the 1940s contemporary flesh and blood that is unapologetically rooted in Sweden and unapologetically about thumbing a nose to convention.

But something has to be said for that wig alone. Complementing a fantastically detailed body of costumes by Sarah Roberts, the characteristic red Pippi wig with plaits akimbo almost deserves a credit of its own. Poking into the eyes of the neighbouring kids, Tommy (Matthew Rusznyak) and Annika (Rufaro Shava), it’s cheeky and raucous and completely solid in how it embraces Pippi’s values and personality.

Like the Harvey Comics character Little Lotta, in a sense, Pippi Longstocking is amazingly strong. She’s also super-likeable for her peers, has total disdain for regimented order and pattern and is feared and detested by the adult community, for this reason. Indeed, the work presents the adults in it as considerably unsophisticated in their values. Pippi is a wild child, who arrives out of nowhere in suburbia, to live alone with her pet monkey called Mr Nielson and a horse in her kitchen. Her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is a pirate on the high seas. And armed with these credentials, and a big bag full of pirate gold, she’s an anomaly who can sing, dance and makes up life as she goes.

And the message: that life is about a lot more than following the rules or slipping into a puddle of self-pity. It’s about acting on instinct, about not being afraid to make mistakes and be vulnerable. And it’s about loving honestly and deeply.

  • Pippi Longstocking – The Musical is adapted for stage by Staffan Götestam, based on the eponymous children’s book by Astrid Lindgren. It is directed by Francois Theron and features design by Dale Scheepers (musical director), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Zoe Beavon, Sandy Bota, Marvin Molepo, Genevieve Olivier, Roberto Queiroz, Graeme Wicks and Luciano Zuppa, and three child casts, comprising Hannah Cohen, Yarden Dagan, Simone Greely, Khensani Mabaso, Gabriel Poulson, Matthew Rusznyak, Rufaro Shava, Max Stern and Ricci Waksman [this review is based on the work featuring Yarden Dagan, Matthew Rusznyak and Rufaro Shava] at the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown, Johannesburg, until October 16. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Forever gems and smiles to set the world aglow

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WHAT comes around … Cruelty and ugliness become synonymous when Hyena (Sandi Dlangalala) meets Fudukazi the tortoise (Nomonde Matiwane). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

Occasionally, very occasionally, a creative work seems to make itself. Is it about the universe taking control? Or God? Perhaps it is about having done a thing so often you go into autopilot and don’t think about the hugeness of what you are doing. Either way, when this kind of small miracle happens, everything, but everything, fits into place, in such a way that you can almost hear it click. This level of theatrical brilliance is what you experience in Khokho’s Treasure.

A couple of years in development, this work, which began as Under the Baobab Tree is a clever cipher for a range of African stories. An old man, beloved by the community in which he lived, has died. His legacy is contained in a big suitcase. And what can it be? Is it money? Is it jewels? Rather than anything crassly material, the suitcase is a repository of triggers to stories, songs and memories. And Francois Theron and his cast take the possibilities of these values and shine them up to an astonishing level, which will touch you – and your child – deeply.

Stripped of cliché, the stories are told with a developed sense of empathy and a generosity of spirit. The cast, including established NCT performers such as Suzaan Helberg and Nomonde Matiwane, and newcomer Kealeboga Tshenya, is young enough, yet mature enough, to inject a fine level of wit and self-deprecation into the range of characters that inform the material, which makes you love each and every one, not only for his or her good qualities, but for his or her flaws too. Arguably the highlight is a new tale by Gcina Mhlophe, about Fudukazi, the magic tortoise, epitomised in beautiful detail by Matiwane, who is not afraid to lend such heart to her performance that you weep out of love for the hapless beast.

But something must also be said for Helberg’s smile. This young actress, who plays the gogo and narrator of the work, in her very competent and linguistically flawless performance, exudes a sense of happiness which is so uncontrived and so giving that you get swept up in its glow. Indeed, the positive energy of this work is infectious, as it sidesteps triteness. Not all of the five stories told are happy ones, but each of them presents an energy that gives cultural miens – and South Africa’s different languages – a place. From Afrikaans to Ndebele, isiXhosa to Sesotho, there’s an easy and legible flow of the idea of cultural relevance, be it with a blanket in hand, or under the spell of Nomhle, the African Cinderella, be it in a soccer tournament or on the rural hills of KwaZulu-Natal.

Brightly coloured and direct, Khokho’s Treasure could be an ambassador to all that it good and hopeful in this beautiful land of ours. And while very little tots might become restless before interval, because of the work’s length, as a creative manifestation, it’s as good as it gets.

  • Khokho’s Treasure is adapted and directed by Francois Theron and features design by Stan Knight (set and costumes), Nicol Sheraton and Phillida le Roux (choreography), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Dale Scheepers (musical direction). It is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson, Suzaan Helberg, Nomonde Matiwane, Mark Tatham and Kealeboga Tshenye at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 3. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Startled by Coriolanus

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#MartiusMustFall! A young cast tells the dense tragedy of Coriolanus. Photograph courtesy reviewonline.co.za

IT’S RATHER AN odd kind of name to be trending around senior high school students at the moment. Coriolanus is arguably one of Shakespeare’s densest and more difficult works. With no witches or ghosts, monsters or weather patterns to give it verve, it’s a tragedy of political violence and class struggle which resonates with the political morals of our own times, and it’s also this year’s and next year’s English matric setwork for South African schools affiliated to the Independent Examinations Board. This production casts the National Children’s Theatre in a previously unexplored framework: that of the teenaged audience.

And all these elements are to the theatre and the production team’s credit. The pared-down set, and cleverly adaptable costume changes lend starkness and boldness to this rendition. The young enthusiastic cast and their dry-mouthed passion in articulating the tale is infectious and your focus is caught and held very quickly. The play, featuring some astonishing fight choreography, is geared to adapt easily to a range of different venues and to travel easily, but, it seems, having seen the work at the intimate theatre of the NCT in Parktown, the cast has not been adequately prepped in modulating their volume in different spaces.

While it may be all fun and dandy to bang sticks on the floor of a high school stage and shout with great volubility into the faces of youngsters who are studying the work, doing something similar to adult audiences in a tiny space hurts not only the play’s clarity, but the audience’s ability to engage the material. The cajoling of a mob could have been as effective – if not more sinister – had it been conducted in a whisper, in this venue, for instance.

It’s a curious thing: a porous reflection on the theatre’s fourth wall is understood to loosen up the material and render it more casual but offer a more developed understanding of the characters being performed, because responding to audience members effectively changes the nub and current of the performance. Each night. Noble goals, indeed. But it makes some rather astonishing assumptions on the robustness of said audience members. There’s a give and take that happens in this context which puts you, in the audience, who has paid for your ticket, at a disadvantage. This feels wrong: Don’t shout into my face. Move me with your conviction and your skill and your supreme understanding of what you are doing.

The play is sensibly cut to a workable duration of 90 minutes or so. But Coriolanus is not marketed as one of Shakespeare’s more ‘sexy’ works, for a range of reasons. The material, dealing with everything from the ethics of honouring your parents to remaining true to what you believe in, is replete with nuance that takes it back to ancient Rome where it is set. It is dense with cultural references and this young cast doesn’t play a strong role in clarifying the work’s narrative spine. Pieces like Just Antigone and (After) The Flies, for instance, meshed complex historical works with a contemporary understanding, as well as audience engagement, without compromising the material or the focus. But in spite of some hashtag-evocative chants throughout the work, Coriolanus doesn’t offer you any of that loose, wise astuteness, and you leave the work not really entertained or even informed but still startled.

Having said all of that, the difficulty of the initiative must be taken into account. This is a tremendously talented group of creative professionals. Their articulation of Shakespeare’s words is uncompromised and beautiful and their interaction onstage is sophisticated and bold. It’s just their friendliness to an audience that needs more sharpening.

  • Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is co-directed by Rohan Quince and Nicola Pilkington. It features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Stan Knight (set construction) and Ryan Dittman (combat choreographer). It is performed by Cassius Davids, Emma Delius, William Harding, Maxx Moticoe, Emilie Owen, Thapelo Sebogodi, Carlos Williams and Sanelisiwe Yekani, and is performing a travelling season under the auspices of the National Children’s Theatre, which will be touring to high schools nationally. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Tamed by the Little Prince

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THERE’S A STARMAN WAITING IN THE SKY: Magic and whimsy bring The Little Prince to life on stage. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

THE CHALLENGE OF translating arguably one of the world’s most well loved stories, replete with fantasy and symbolism that reaches into the hearts of the crabbiest of grown-ups, is not to be sneezed at. Director Francois Theron has achieved something quite extraordinary in this production of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s 1943 classic The Little Prince, which to its great credit, earnestly holds on to the beautiful language of the original translation into English.

Not kowtowing to the temptation of technology, the piece is beautifully crafted. It features a very simple yet ingenious set which allows everything its own space – from the helpless broken aeroplane moored in a relentless desert in Africa, to the splendour of a king’s throne. But more than the careful manipulation of sound and light and clear fun in the creation of costumes, the work features delicious quirks in small and unexpected ways, which resonate like gems.

“We are the roses”, declare Lea Vivier and Waydene Laing, properly, with coyly arrogant pride which is quickly stripped to the mark by the Little Prince (played on opening night by AJ Mathee).  There’s a splendid interplay of earnest solemnity in the face of a mad little gesture, that has the power to turn a cameo performance into a highlight. Indeed both Vivier and Laing sparkle in several of their many roles, offering a blend of eastern mystique with innocence, as they depict everything from the Rose to the Snake.

The necessary light reflexive understanding of the complex challenges that this immensely simple yet deep tale embody, is, however, not consistently developed in this production, and the rich language is bruised by occasionally shouty wooden performances, which convey the words accurately, but in many instances, compromise the soul of the moment.

This cast of five enthusiastic performers work really hard to tell this tale and present the nuggets of wisdom which jump out at you and make you cry in the reading of the text. But alas, you feel the weight of the effort in this production. Further, it features very difficult language which might bamboozle – or worse, bore – your average five-to-eight year old, who may get lost in the work’s subtleties. It’s a Catch-22: the language is essential to the piece, but our child audiences don’t have the focus to imbibe it or be seduced by its beauty.

But can one viably represent a tale so anachronistic and iconic as this in such limited parameters? Not really a children’s tale, the work embraces love and loss and death and folly with an ambit that spans generations. It pokes fun at the things that adults think are important and conveys an understanding of beloved magic that like the Little Prince himself is so preciously ephemeral, you have to hold onto every word and nuance.

Not a perfect production, but an admirable foray into something great, this rendition of The Little Prince should be approached with an open heart. After all, as the Fox (Dean Christian) tells us, what is essential can only be seen with the heart; it is invisible to the eye.

  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is adapted for stage and directed by Francois Theron with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Dale Scheepers (sound). It is performed by Dean Christian, Waydene Laing, Brandon Lindsay, Kabelo Mashika and Lea Vivier, and features a rotating child cast comprising AJ Mathee, Michael Mathee and Samuel Straw. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until April 17. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Squeak like a mouse, roar like a lion

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WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered a great big cuddly lion with a penchant for roaring loudly at times of great emotion, in your local municipal library? This fabulous little yarn created by Michelle Knudsen and brought to musical life onstage under the directorial hand of Francois Theron debuts at the National Children’s Theatre as its current touring production, will set many a junior primary school child alight with the magic that one can find all quietly tucked into the books of the library.

Designed for a three-to-six year old audience, the work is bold, with clear-to-understand songs and a narrative to make you laugh with its sheer solemn sense of possibility. Showcasing siblings Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi as Kevin, Michelle and Jenny respectively, the three young library users who make friends with this great big somewhat bewildered beastie (Gamelihle Bovana), the work is supported by an utterly ingenious set by Stan Knight, which lends itself to simply casting library mystique over the context of the NCT’s stage in Parktown as well as any regular classroom in any primary school.

And supported by strict rule-keeper librarians Mr McBee (Kabelo Lethoba) and Miss Merriweather (Kayli ‘Elit Smith), who are strident, competent and shrill in their rule abiding way, as grown ups should be, if you’re three years old, the work enjoys the catalyst of the storytelling lady, played by Veronique Mensah, and the inimitable lion himself. It’s a fabulous foil for snippets of tales from the Aesop’s fable involving a lion and a mouse, to C S Lewis’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, not to mention many an angry, or hungry or naughty lion that crops up in children’s literature.

While teetering very slightly towards the text heavy before interval, the work is sprinkled lovingly with song and dance, but it is Bovana’s characterisation of this great and gentle, curious and respectful, but by and large wordless king of the jungle with such humanity and empathy that points irrevocably to the moral values caught in the upper reaches of this play.

What you come away with is not only an appreciation that some rules can be bent under specific circumstances, and that knowing why rules exist is a tremendous stimulus for being able to honour them, but even more than that, you in the audience are left reflecting on the point of view of the outsider – he may be a lion, but he may also be a child with different physical needs, or a child who doesn’t speak the language, or a newcomer. He needs to be embraced.

And more than all of this is the celebration of the humble institution of the library. It’s certainly something that needs this society’s attention. Rather urgently.

  • Library Lion based on the eponymous 2006 book by Michelle Knudsen, is adapted for stage by Eli Bijaoui and directed by Francois Theron, with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Drew Rienstra (music direction) and Nicol Sheraton (choreography). It is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kabelo Lethoba, Veronique Mensah and Kayli ‘Elit Smith and a child cast comprising Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi, as the touring production of the National Children’s Theatre, until February 28. It is touring to primary schools in Gauteng and performs at the NCT in Parktown on Saturdays. Call 011 484 1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Happy insanity in the insect-riddled heart of a giant peach: remarkable theatre

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“Oh James, we’re not going to eat you,” Samuel Hertz (centre bottom) is James Henry Trotter, surrounded by his new bunch of giant insect friends: (clockwise) Miss Ladybug (Kyra Green), Mr Grasshopper (Shaun Koch), Mr Earthworm (Veronique Mensah), Mr Centipede (Gamelihle Bovana) and Miss Spider (Dolly Louw). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

The utter madness of Roald Dahl’s 1960s runaway success involving a giant peach, a solution to the unhappiness of a small boy at the hands of revolting grown ups and an investment of hope in the future rickety and full of peach flesh though it may be, has been ably translated to stage by Francois Theron.

Not an easy production technically, by any manner of means, the work entails different English-speaking accents – an American component is flush with a British one – conjoined with the illusion of flight  and that of floatation, containment in a vast fruit and the entrapment of insensate seagulls, to name but a few. From an issues-based perspective, it involves the representation and reflection of the violent death of both loved and hated grown ups, and a sense of heroic potency which will touch the young performers – there’s an alternating cast of fours Jameses – for the rest of their lives.

Armed with the need to resolve all of these problems within the small space of the theatre, viewed up close by myriads of enthusiastic audience members, both young and old, and those who know the book and the animated film of the story well, as well as those who don’t, this production is a remarkable achievement.

The adult cast is beautifully selected and honed – each of them, from the dignified and gorgeously dressed violin-playing grasshopper (Shaun Koch), to the boisterous centipede who relishes being known as a pest (Gamelihle Bovana), to the terribly insecure earthworm with a low self esteem and blindness, but a warm heart and a beautiful skin (Veronique Mensah), not to forget the supportive ladybug (Kyra Green) and spider (Dolly Louw) – the larger than life insect component of the work is top class.

The boy in the eponymous role, is however, the one on whom all attention is focused from the proverbial curtain up until the closing credits, and this is a really tough role for a child of 10 or 11. On opening night, Samuel Hertz played James, with a level of aplomb that at times was so delicate yet boisterous and at others, reflected such a mature understanding of what a four year old – or a seven year old – would do, that his performance resonated with that of child performers of the ilk of the Barclay Wright in Alan Bleasedale’s 1990s series Jake’s Progress, who also is obliged to switch accents during the course of the work.

The English accent does, however, at times prove challenging on the ear of the listener and while the intonation is kept uniform, sometimes the language’s clarity is compromised. But mostly, it isn’t, and while elements like the Cloud-Men, the silkworm and the glow worm have been sensibly omitted from the stage version, other elements like Dahl’s delicious poetry about revolting food concoctions that insects eat and other fine things, and his completely lovely representation of James’s two nasty aunts, Sponge (Mensah) and Spiker (Louw) are highlighted and handled with the kind of nimbleness and acuity that the written text exudes, offering young audiences much to treasure in terms of  richness and idiosyncrasy and a sense that anything is possible – including a completely charming and hilarious vignette of the spotting of the peach by a ship at sea.

Much can also be forgiven in this production: one element to the work’s construction makes it feel too quickly brought together – the segueing of the narrative with the changing flows of the set is rough and tends to bruise your focus on the story being told. Curtains make a noise when they’re opened and closed, which force you to remember that this is not a giant peach on a sea filled with sharks, but just the illusion of one, in a small space. While the set comprises drawings strongly and deliciously evocative of those by Quentin Blake which adorn many editions of Dahl’s published work, there is an interface of story and special effects that is too heavily coated with stage smoke: the magic is so powerfully inherent in the cast’s performance that the smoke masks rather than emphasises it, and could credibly be excised from the work.

James’s tale is a totally unapologetic madcap one, the kind of wild fantasy that children of this generation, hampered as they are by social media and technology and the commercial accessibility of everything imaginable, need. It’s a tonic with a blush of frenetic peach-coloured energy that will leave you clamouring for more.

  • James and the Giant Peach, based on the eponymous book by Roald Dahl (1961) is adapted for stage by David Wood and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Dale Scheepers (sound editing) and is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kyra Green, Shaun Koch, Dolly Louw and Veronique Mensah, and an alternating children’s cast comprising Caleb Botha, Samuel Hertz, Taro Lue and Gabriel Poulsen. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit org.za