How to spice Christmas with shlock, shock and socks

cyrilandshirley

GETTING on like a house on fire: Son and mother, Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) and Shirley (Toni Morkel). Photograph by Dean Hutton.

THE YEAR’S BEEN grim, callous and ugly to most of us. We’ve lost people we’ve loved. And jobs we’ve relied on. War’s been apparent all over the place. As has disappointment in those who lead us. What better way to herald its closure than to indulge in easily the best nativity play you can imagine. Taking the earnestness from the tale and sprinkling it liberally with cabaret, intimate drunken mother/gay son dialogue and other fine spices, this nativity was a sock puppet drama, with schlock and shock ramped up all the way.

Arguably a character who is set to become iconic in South Africa is Sheila Shler. Last month, wig askew, lipstick smeared, but her posh Saxonwold accent still intact, she reported to facebook audiences from the SQs (servants’ quarters) of her grand estate, announcing that her (former) maid, Tryfeena had captured her house and moved her to the servants’ quarters while she slept. It was a tale constructed by veteran performer Robert Colman, contingent on the ‘Saxonwold shebeen’ saga spouted by Brian Molefe formerly of Eskom in his urge to prove himself clean of a Gupta stain, but that’s another whole story.

Sheila has since begun to enjoy a series, which is developing as we speak. And a family. Of sorts. While she did do a guest appearance in the nativity saga, involving baking and boogying, it was Sheila’s very very good friend, Shirley (Toni Morkel) and her son Cyril Dene (Robert Colman) who hosted the delicious revue. Confused yet? Well, you shouldn’t be.

This collaboration by unquestionably the country’s greatest veteran performers, in their sparkly slingbacks, double-decker wigs and bathing suits, to say nothing of long plastic eyelashes, as they lip synced perfectly to opera and delved with grubby issues of old age, sex and death most deliciously, was simply fantastic. It was a slice of Doo Bee Boobies and a soupçon of what might happen next in Sheila Shler’s life. And it was replete with many hilarious cherries on top, including a performance by the inimitable Irene Stephanou as Jesus’ granny with a strong Greek accent, who resents being omitted from the bible; the unforgettable Christine by Mark Hawkins who has terrifyingly dead eyes and other surprises; and a reflection on Welkom as being a little piece of hell for the aged, by Fiona Ramsay and Tony Bentel (who played Death).

With repartee as filthy and direct as is necessary and puppetry by Margaret Auerbach and Eduardo Cachucho that had the audience bordering on hysteria, there were nubs of poignancy and reality that pierced the show and lent it heart. You didn’t just go away with a grin hurting from too frequent use. Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas Variety Show has the potential of being a trailblazer in a whole range of directions, from Stephanou’s Jesus granny tearing into biblical narrative a la Kazantzakis  and his Last Temptation of Christ, to Sheila Shler’s ongoing tale of woe as a beacon showing the other side of what is happening in this country. This was a one-night-only event, but if there’s a chance it will regenerate itself come the end of 2017, there’s certainly something to look forward to in the year ahead!

  • Cyril and Shirley’s Sock Puppet Nativity and Xmas variety show was written, directed and performed by Robert Colman and Toni Morkel. It featured puppetry Margaret Auerbach and Spellbound Puppets, as well as performances by Tony Bentel, Mark Hawkins, Roberto Pombo, Fiona Ramsay, Irene Stephanou. It performed for a one-night-only season at Pop Arts theatre, Maboneng precinct, downtown Johannesburg on December 15. Visit popartcentre.co.za
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Back to the future with a pot of kak at the end of the rainbow

paybackcurry

WHAT happened to our dreams? Daniel Mpilo Richards will blow you away.

YOU MIGHT THINK the political repartee through which we have collectively been wading for the last little while has been so overused by local comics that nothing’s very funny anymore. You’d be wrong. Mike van Graan’s Pay Back the Curry will dispossess you of any of those ideas, within its first few moments. Tautly cast, beautifully written in tune with the shenaginans in our country and seamlessly performed by the immensely talented Daniel Mpilo Richards, this is South African satire at its most ruthlessly scathing best.

But humour is complex, as director Rob van Vuuren indicates with this highly polished piece of work. Many Van Vuuren fans may know him for his work on Corné and Twakkie and the Most Amazing Show – or as a stand up comic. But there’s another side to this talented theatre personality, which saw plays of the ilk of Brother Number and The Three Little Pigs, really sinister works that meld well-established ideas with their utter corollaries: his successful appearance in serious theatre as well as comic roles makes him the perfect man to direct this piece.

Part stand up comedy, part revue, this one-man-play takes everything from Shakespeare to Sinatra, Somewhere Over the Rainbow to Born Free and casts it relentlessly against the besmirched mirror of our times. The writing is nimble and supremely sophisticated. You might laugh out loud several times, but the repartee will also have you squirming uncomfortably in your seat – and there, indeed, is the rub: occasionally in this intensely focused work you will find your grin frozen on your face in horror, as the focus digresses from the foolishness of Zuma and into the terror of being an African in a context where lesbians are raped, poverty pervades and corruption rules.

Pay Back the Curry doesn’t tell a story in the conventional way, but Richards so smoothly embraces myriad persona changes while he seduces the audience to looking at things they would normally shy from, that the sorry tale of contemporary South Africa gets splayed and flayed for all to see. From Penny Sparrow to Oscar Pistorius, the Guptas to Malema, nothing dodgy, contradictory, shameful or blatantly foolish escapes Van Graan’s intimate and bold speculum.

This play is an important one for this moment – it’s the kind of work that will date because its references are so very specific. Richards’s performance however, won’t: this is an actor who embraces major challenges with acumen and integrity. You can’t draw your eyes from him as he embodies every kind of political voice you can imagine, with all the colour, intelligence and flair necessary. See this play, now, while it’s ripe.

  • Pay Back the Curry is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob van Vuuren. It features design by Gantane Kusch (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until December 15. Call 011 883 8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

Where giggles and song should part ways

keyboardkillers

MAGIC fingers: Ian von Memerty. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

A MEDLEY OF songs is a curious thing. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest compilation: enough to get your heart racing with nostalgia, but not enough to include every word. It’s a tight juxtaposition of hits that doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, and yet the cohesive whole is delicious. This is the strength of Ian von Memerty’s Keyboard Killers, a celebration of eight men who wielded the piano with their fingers and their voice in a way that shaped the world, effectively.

From the simple melodies of Irving Berlin to the complex navigations through Beethoven and Handl that features in the beautiful complicated diversity of Billie Joel’s work, von Memerty is at the helm of his Yamaha piano, with a rich sense of self, a double bass on his right and a set of bongo drums on his left. Who could ask for anything more?

The show, structured like many of its ilk, is simply about entertainment, and conjoined with the incredibly fine work by pianists including Freddie Mercury, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Fats Waller and John Legend, it contains a rash of obligatory funny bits. The truth is, these funnies hurt the intensity of the programme and the potential brilliance of von Memerty on keyboard. Spewing self-deprecating jokes at various interregna in the show, von Memerty doesn’t do complete justice to his own skill, which soars and reaches out when he plays the work of Billie Joel and Freddie Mercury, but loses a sense of momentum in the bum wiggling exercises, the tired political jibes and the impromptu clowning.

Keyboard Killers is a pleasant enough show, but one not convincingly directed to celebrate von Memerty’s true fire – the kind of work that earned him his veteran keyboard king status.

  • Keyboard Killers is compiled and performed by Ian von Memerty with Bronwyn Clacherty on percussion and Andrew Warneke on bass. It performs in the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, until October 30. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

How to fall in love with Afrikaans

Brilliant: Nataniel tells the impossibly delightful history of the fork, and other fine things. Photograph courtesy kyknet

Brilliant: Nataniel tells the impossibly delightful history of the fork, and other fine things. Photograph courtesy kyknet

What is it that can take a language coloured by historical violence, a conservative community with historical bias on its hands, and turn them completely around, enabling the community in question to view itself in an hilarious and truthful mirror? The unequivocally miraculous phenomenon of Afrikaans culture that singer-storyteller-performer of many additional talents Nataniël has been bringing to South African stages since 1983 is arguably amongst the best success stories in the arts of this country. And he continues, relentlessly: Banket met Nataniël (Banquet with Nataniël), a radio show that will be flighted on November 20, on RSG, as the finale of this year’s RSG Arts Festival, is one of those impeccably delicious bits of theatre that will leave you completely the richer.

This afternoon saw a live studio recording of the work, in the SABC’s magnificent if desperately underused recording studio, and within a set comprising large candles, an orchid and black drapes, the inimitable performer gave the spellbound and oft almost hysterical audience another beautiful gem.

A concatenation of his stories told in Afrikaans, and his songs, mostly performed in English, features in this show, which is about the back story of food and etiquette and what makes human society, tick. Above all, it’s a one-man revue which will make you remember why the arts are important to society and why you need to cherish each day, and make the simple gesture of eating a piece of toast with a lump of butter melting into it, as memorable and beautiful as a banquet.

Delivering a heady mix of home truths, hilarious nonsensical juxtapositions, and asides in his characteristic deadpan approach, Nataniel cocks a fond and gentle, but nevertheless blatantly honest snook at the society from which he originates; a master of succinct storytelling, he conjures up such delights as the young opera singer with a lazy eye that made everyone too frightened to look at her when she sang; the woman with a body resembling in Volkswagen beetle, in light blue crimplene; the security guard with beautiful muscles but a cake-less history and a detailed and thoughtful glance at the underbelly of manners in our society.

He tosses in a bunch of clichés about life being unpredictable and precious, but never allows himself to digress into the maudlin or even the anticipated. Rather his material, like his reflection on a dark chocolate-covered koeksister, remains hard and crispy to the first bite, but blending sweet and sour tastes. Indeed, his material, like his fondness for aligning seemingly contradictory flavours, throws salty in juxtaposition with sweet, hot with cold. But above all, it’s about a celebration of the nuances and texture, the spiciness and caveats in the language of Afrikaans itself.

The experience is astonishing. The show will not be repeated but should not be missed.

  • The RSG Kunstefees, comprising a rich array of culture that you can imbibe with your ears runs from Sunday November 15 at 3pm until Friday November 20 at 10pm. This, the third radio-based arts festival in South Africa may be accessed on 100 to 104FM or on DStv channel 913. The festival is also available online on rsg.co.za – where the full programme is available.
  • Banket met Nataniël will be broadcast on November 20 at 8.40pm.

Of baked beans and Hello Kitty, modest bling and uncurbable skinder: Welcome to Boegoespruit Ext 25

The Boegoespruit 'family',  clockwise from back: Twala (Jovan Muthray); Christina (Francesa Matthys); Unti (Sharmyan Kassen) and Shaamiela (Kirsty Marillier). Photograph courtesy www.wherevent.com

The Boegoespruit ‘family’, clockwise from back: Twala (Jovan Muthray); Christina (Francesa Matthys); Unti (Sharmyan Kassen) and Shaamiela (Kirsty Marillier). Photograph courtesy http://www.wherevent.com

The thrill of being in the presence of fresh young work as it hatches is incomparable. When you sit in the audience of this delightful work, created in entirety by students, you realise the palpable dynamite that there is in this industry, waiting to explode into professional careers. Boegoespruit Ext 25 is a work not without its flaws, and not devoid of a formulaic construction. It’s also rough around the edges and does need more sharpening, but with all these healable bruises, it’s a solid and delicious piece of theatre that offers a self-deprecating glance at the idiosyncrasies of being coloured, being poor and being hilarious that will make you sit up and take notice of these four young performers.

The saga of a spaza, Boegoespruit Ext 25 is an essay on informal contemporary living conditions, replete with gossip and tragedy, humour and pathos that will move you to spontaneous laughter and tears. The characters are larger than life: Twala, a ‘hairchetect’ (Jovan Muthray), who wears golden pants and a jacket zhooshed into bling with bits of hardware from cold drink cans; Unti, the massively bosomed baked beans queen (Sharmyan Kassen), with a Hello Kitty penchant who runs the spaza shop; Shaamiela, a school girl who knows more about social intercourse than perhaps she should (Kirsty Marillier); and Christina, a bank clerk on a trajectory to be somebody in this world (Francesca Matthys).

Together they form an approximation of a family and reflect on the see-sawing of life, punctuated as it is by a lack of material comfort, a rumbling sense of self-deprecating humour and many dollops of rich local colour. The plot is simple, and has a nice hairpin bend in it, but not a satisfyingly developed ending. And while Unti and Twala steal the show in terms of how well their characters are developed, Unti’s make up is so overdone that she reads as a male in obvious drag, from the get go.

Once you realise that is not the case, you quickly learn to roll with the social punches that this play, which borders on being a revue of sorts, delivers, wrapping real issues of homophobia, rejection, deep sadness and drug addiction into the hilarious fabric of this sustainably strong work. More than anything, the text of Boegoespruit attests to the robustness of this community, stained as it is by the detritus of apartheid and broken by social bias. As a theatre piece, it attests to the way in which the students understand the principles of clowning, of playing to an audience and of collaborating with genuine generosity. The set, too, offers an intimate and astute understanding of the society being reflected, and works well. Remember these names: you will be seeing them again on professional stages soon.

  • Boegoespruit Ext 25 is directed by Leonie Ogle with design by Nthabiseng Malaka (set) and Hlomohang Mothetho. It is written and devised by the cast: Sharmyan Kassen, Kirsty Mariller, Francesca Matthys and Jovan Muthray, and performs at the Nunnery, as part of the Wits 969 Festival, on July 21, 23, 24 and 25. Tickets via co.za

For the love of a little red piano

Solemn yet spotty: Rocco and his piano. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

Solemn yet spotty: Rocco and his piano. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

It’s curiously challenging to attempt to pinpoint quite what makes Rocco de Villiers’s work so utterly entertaining and sublimely successful. Not unlike Nataniël, but still holding firmly to his own brand, his is an approach that is light-hearted yet earnest, filled with puffs of effervescent notes yet competent, and deeply hilarious while touching tragic simultaneously. It is also unashamedly lacking in the kind of conventional polish you might believe you need to expect in a revue of this nature.

And indeed, as the show’s title indicates, it is all about the piano – not to mention the indelible image cast into your mind’s eye of a four-year-old Rocco in a white safari suit, upstaging his “unbelievably untalented” music teacher. The upright red little piano sits rather vulnerably centre stage, a counterpoint between de Villiers’s spotted pants and the equally spotted backdrop.  Blending his unique brand of story-telling, which will have you rolling in the aisles, with his piano playing, there’s a vicious sentimentality in his narrataive which celebrates Afrikaans’s delicious barbs, that just don’t bear translation.

Introducing a Kawai piano from Japan, and touching on many things from tango to Edelweiss from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Sound of Music, to his own sweet, delicate and oft jazzy compositions, de Villiers seduces the audience from the moment he’s in the spotlight. And you fall in love with him, with no hesitation. His show is a brand like no other, and it’s as infallible and unshakeable as any household product.

The actress Lauren Botha performs a kind of “magician’s assistant” role, which lacks development, and adds a “take-it-or-leave-it” bit of spice that could have been hilariously developed or omitted altogether.

All About the Piano, crusted as it is with unabashed cliché and sentimentality, doesn’t pretend to be anything more than delicious, light entertainment, with a bite. You come away from it with a grin on your face and a fresh new positive outlook. It’s all that the popular music of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties presented, coupled with prickly bits of Afrikaans.

  • All About the Piano written and performed by Rocco de Villiers features Lauren Botha. It is at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until April 12.

And now for something completely nostalgic

Never can say goodbyeMichael de Pinna, Annabel Linder and Keith Smith. Photograph courtesy Foxwood Theatre.

Never can say goodbyeMichael de Pinna, Annabel Linder and Keith Smith. Photograph courtesy Foxwood Theatre.

What happens when you put four song and dance and jazz veterans together with some timeless classics from the American Song Book, a bit of Bessie Smith and a smattering of Joan Rivers, to say nothing of the Communards’ delicious Never Can Say Goodbye? In simple terms, a little bit of magic.

This is Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd, a modest and completely unapologetically nostalgic evening with Michael de Pinna, Keith Smith, Annabel Linder and Sam Sklair on clarinet – a man who, in his nineties, still exudes sex appeal. These performers, collectively onstage and doing their thing for more than 100 years, have amazingly, never shared a show of this nature until now. They also really know how it’s done: They know the nuts and bolts and terrors and traumas of this industry well. And they have nothing to prove or to lose, which makes the show feel light and effortless, and enables an unadulterated sense of happiness to infiltrate the space.

Perhaps with the eye of a director, it would have been tightened a tad, but your inner register of happiness as you unashamedly drink up the beauty of songs from Gershwin and Bacharach, Dreamgirls and Chicago, the 1950s and the 1970s and more, simply doesn’t care. Being in the audience of this show makes you feel like you are a house guest in an environment that loves you.

Foxwood is not your slickest of theatre venues in this city. And the show is structurally rough, featuring at times competition between the piped music and the live instrument but the ethos of warmth is such that everything is forgiven; you emerge with your heart buzzing, as it should. How privileged we are to experience the performances of each of these stalwarts.

  • Two’s Company, Three’s a Show features Michael de Pinna, Annabel Linder and Keith Smith, accompanied by Sam Sklair on clarinet. It performs on Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Foxwood Theatre, 13-Fifth Street, Houghton Johannesburg, until March 8 (011)486-0935