Are we home, yet?

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WHAT happens now? Grace (Lynelle Kenned) en route to a foreign country to escape a war in Africa. Photograph by Oscar O’Ryan

<<Warning: This production contains strobe lights and lights focused directly on the audience>>

THE TRICK OF writing good material for a stage production is not about packing a story full of so much detail that it develops narrative indigestion, and then focusing interrogation-strong lights on your audience from time to time. It’s about the age-old principle of less is more.

The much-anticipated brand new musical Calling Me Home is, as it is billed, a story of hope, a story of love and a story of home. But it’s also a story of drugs and shallow stereotypes, a story of war and Africa, a story of jail and betrayal, a story of class awareness and poverty, a story of prostitutes and the mafia, a story of woman abuse and exile, and the list goes on. In short, it tries very earnestly to do far too many things concurrently and sadly spins way out of its depth very quickly.

To add insult to injury, it’s a very long show, clocking in at close to three hours, including the interval. It’s this long because the story is pedantic and begs for the decisions of a strong editor. The songs are also annoyingly repetitive. Featuring strong voices which have earned their stripes in the local theatre industry, including Lynelle Kenned, Samantha Peo and Anthony Downing, the work doesn’t respect the individual personae of the performers, and its thunderball of a story which is bombastic as it is clichéd, featuring bland choreography – particularly for the women, and lyrics which utterly lack poetry, become something of an ordeal for the audience to sit through.

It’s a story of sibling love in a time of war, jimmied into other realities in a diversity of directions which make you think there was an angry committee at the helm of this writing project.

Indeed, in the opening scenes, Zolani Mahola presents a strong Lindiwe, who meets Grace (Lynelle Kenned) on the train and the two become friends. Lindiwe is a woman with a terrible tale to tell: she’s a runaway from an abusive husband. As the story unfolds and rolls in a whole range of concurrent directions, Lindiwe turns into a cameo, a casualty of the work.

This is not an isolated instance of thwarted opportunity. Samantha Peo plays Isabella, a tragic figure who is the sister of Rafael (Anthony Downing), Grace’s romantic interest. She sings in a night club, snorts her way through unhappiness and is subject to the whims of Russian druglords, Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden) and Ivan (Christiaan Snyman). Isabella’s tale headlines the second half of the production, and it’s a squalid tale told with great dollops of schmaltz, so earnest in their application that the potential subtlety of Peo’s character is battered by the prosaic nature of the work.

All things considered, with due respect to the professionals involved in creating this work and giving the project life, you cannot help but ask yourself: we live currently in such a violent society; do we really need to spend money to see more war and strobe lights on our stages, in the garb of tricksy techology? Do we really need to be exposed to gun-toting performers casting a fantasy war around us, as we sit in a theatre?

Calling Me Home features innovative set design with animation that will hold your interest – conveying a sense of space and atmosphere which is clear and compelling. But some basic premises in the work hurt what might have been good intentions, and as you peer through these sets at the world the production hopes to magic into life, you come away with some very damaging stereotypes about cultures – Africans are defined by war, poverty and cultural naivete, while Americans are tainted by the overweening presence of Russian crime bosses, construction workers and prostitutes. It’s enough to make you want to flee all the way home, without even being called to do so.

  • Calling Me Home is written and composed by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar, assisted by Grant van Ster. It features creative input by Nadine Minnaar (set), Joshua Cutts (lighting), Louis Minnaar and Werner Burger (animation), Shaun Oelf (choreography), Alice Gillham and Stefan Lombard (musical direction), Mark Malherbe (sound), Matthew James (soundscape) and Juanita Kôtze and Sue Daniels (wardrobe). It is performed by Luigia Casaleggio, Anthony Downing, Richard Gau, Carly Graeme, Isabella Jane, Lynelle Kenned, Saxola Ketshengane, Vasti Knoesen, Clint Lesch, Tannah Levick, Thiart Li, Zolani Mahola, Kgomotso Makwela, Tankiso Mamabolo, Michael McMeeking, Manda Ndimande, Given Nkosi, Yollandi Nortjie, Samantha Peo, Laura-Lee Pitout, Musanete Sakupwanya, Dihan Schoeman, Conroy Scott, Len-Barry Simons, Christiaan Snyman, Annemarie Steenkamp, Shaun Thomas, Anja van den Berg, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Pierre van Heerden, Sebastian Zokoza and Zion Zuke, as well as a live orchestra featuring Cameron Andrews (clarinet), Olga Korvink (violin), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Anna-Maria Muller (flute) and Marga Sander (piano), in the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 3. Visit joburgtheatre.com or call 0861 670 670.
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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.

How a handful of penguins can change your day

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PENGUINS Ahoy: Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde) with two of his wild young birds. Photograph courtesy facebook.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered your house to be filled with curious exotic birds from Antartica, who want nothing more than snuggling in your freezer or eating more raw fish than you can afford? Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde), a bit of an irresponsible adult, if ever there was, gets to bring havoc into the domestic bliss of his Stillwater home as he gets to experience real heartsore in taking adult decisions. Mr Popper’s Penguins, a favourite of American children, which debuts in South Africa, blends a range of personal challenges with strong light and colour, an overload of cuteness and some really homely values.

On many levels, it’s an ideal end of year family show, bringing together all the issues of responsibility and wildness, dreams and possibility, exploration and history and the exploitation of Hollywood into one story. But scripted in the 1930s, as it is, it tends to exude a lot of social blandness which might make contemporary children feel a little impatient or confused. Do young parents address one another as “Momma” and “Poppa” respectively, still? Perhaps not. Replete with all the fabulous attention to detail of set designer Stan Knight, and costume designer Sarah Roberts, which keeps you enthralled and looking at all the different elements, the work on the whole lacks the kind of tight choreographic cohesion we have seen in this theatre in the past and this hurts its overall fabric and texture.

From a sound perspective, Sanli Jooste in her role of the mommy of the tale often fights vocally with the piped music: and the casualty? Her lyrics. You can’t hear what she’s singing. When the idea that she’s going to be performing on a piano is mentioned, you may smile with gladness, feeling relief that a real instrument will adorn the stage, but sadly the cleavage of her mimed piano performance and the music itself resonates illogically.

It is, however, the children in the role of the eponymous birds themselves that lend the work the charm and specialness that really makes this production worth seeing. While you may have expected more “penguinnish” choreography in the stereotypical understanding of how a human child becomes a penguin, these little ones have been well tutored and carefully directed in the different idiosyncrasies that wild birds forced into a domestic context would generally manifest. Sizwe Sibotshiwe’s heart melting moment when he acknowledges his sheer unadulterated loneliness is the unequivocal gem moment of the piece, but it is the squad of five penguins that capture the froth and nuance of the piece, and lend it fire.

  • Mr Popper’s Penguins, featuring lyrics by Jody Davidson and music by Brett Schirer is based on the novel by Richard Atwater and Florence Hasseltine Atwater, and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Clint Lesch (musical direction), Chantal Herman (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Bethany Joy Harding, Samuel Hyde, Thokozani Jiyane, Sanli Jooste, Naret Loots and Siphiwe Nkabinde, with a child cast comprising Clarise Bard, Dionysia Bizos, Danella Cassel, Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Simone Greehy, Joshua Hibbert, Maya Izaki, Summer Kerwin, Katarina Lee-Cook, Rachel Lee-Cook, Aaralyn Muttitt, Gabriel Poulsen, Tannah Proctor, Mathew Rusznyak, Sizwe Sibotshiwe, Kgahliso Solomon, Aisha Thokoane, Litha Tuku, Thando Tuku and Kayleigh van Wyk [the children who featured in the performance upon which this review is premised were Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Summer Kerwin, Aaralyn Muttitt, Tannah Proctor and Sizwe Sibotshiwe]. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Feverish for that acid green sedan

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GETTING on his boogie shoes: Daniel Buys as Tony Manero. Photograph courtesy http://jozistyle.joburg/saturday-night-fever/

PICTURE THE SCENARIO. It’s the mid-1970s in the boroughs of New York City, and white working class teenagers are dancing themselves wild because there’s nothing else to do to keep body and soul together, other than joining the church or getting a low-key boring job. The opening chords – both musically and visually – of the current production of Saturday Night Fever, punctuated with classic songs from the Bee Gees articulates this with aplomb.

But it is the inadequate balance of sound and vocals, some truly grotesque choreography and underwhelming performances that leaves the production wanting. And yes, it’s a dated show, reflecting petty racisms and sexisms of teenagers in America from 40 years ago, but it’s still deemed an iconic classic; had it been performed with slickness, its sense of anachronism would have been forgivable.

Further, if you’re a die-hard Bee Gees fan, you, too, might be disappointed while you wait to be swept away on a swathe of nostalgia by your favourite tunes penned and originally performed by brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb in that distinctive falsetto.

Shows recreated in the last couple of years under the Broadway rubric, such as The Jersey Boys, which performed in South Africa in 2013, directed  by West Hyler, or Dream Girls of 2011, under the direction of Brittney Griffin, were performed in such a way that a song could freeze the moment, cause tears to fall and grown men and women to dance, weeping with love, in the aisles, whether or not they were alive when that music was fashionable. This doesn’t happen in this rendition of Saturday Night Fever. Rather, the music seems toned to be beneath the rather flimsy tale of the dreams of a poor boy to find the girl and the dance moves he deems his.

So, what happens is you struggle to hear the dialogue. The microphones attached to the performers’ foreheads force the sound out at such a level, that the words reverberate in the vast shell of the venue and smash against one another, becoming by and large inaudible. The dancing, with lots of really bizarre lifts and front splits for the women, is neither elegant nor erotic. Does it evoke the ethos of disco chaos of the seventies? Maybe. Certainly the costumes fit the era carefully, with the girls’ leotards and boys bell-bottoms – and of course the inimitable white three-piece suit which John Travolta brought into common fashion parlance with the 1977 film.

Daniel Buys in the starring role of Tony Manero has the voice and the moves, but lacks the sense of authority that a performer like Travolta exuded in this work. Instead, you find yourself trying to remember which one’s the one, when he and his buddies are out on the street.

Having said all of that, Matthew Berry playing the hapless Bobby C, one of Tony’s boys opposite Kiruna-Lind Devar as Pauline, Bobby C’s sweetheart arguably create several moments in this show which redeems the trek to the State Theatre. Beautifully cast, both of these young performers embrace the nuances of their – albeit tiny – roles, with fullness, sensitivity and dignity. They sing beautifully and liaise with conviction.

And then, there’s the acid-green 1970s sedan on the set, which is such a remarkably lovely idea that it should have been written about in the programme. Its elegant unpretentious curvaceousness, even the way in which its boot no longer closes properly, lends a tone of the time and flavour of the era which is irrepressible.

Indeed, the machinery of the set of the State Theatre is another element to this production which takes your breath away. Comprising numerous elevators in a variety of sizes, to say nothing of structures which move in on cue and on wheels, the world of the underbelly of New York is brought with all its dirty sham, drudgery and dreams, onto this stage in Pretoria in a manner so beautifully co-ordinated it rips your attention from the dynamics on stage. Here, you get to see inside Tony’s house, with his upstairs bedroom. There’s the park, and the apartment of Stephanie Mangano (Natasha van der Merwe) who grabs Tony by the libido, the bridge central to the tale and the disco venue itself.

Sadly, the State Theatre remains a conundrum for the regular theatre patron, and this old bastion of culture feels like a building site. The downstairs parking leaks and many bays are not accessible because the building’s in disrepair as a result of neglect. There are bits and chunks of the venue that are defined by shrill warnings to the public to stay away because they are unsafe, and huge electrical cords hang in disarray across the opera venue’s walls – a venue which remains as oblivious to safety needs of theatre venues as it was when it was first opened in 1981.

  • Saturday Night Fever based on the eponymous Paramount/RSO film and the story by Nik Cohn was originally adapted for stage by Robert Sligwood and Bill Oaks. It is directed by Greg Homann with design by Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Weslee Swain Lauder (choreography), Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and TrevOr Peters (sound). It is performed by Joanna Abatzoglou, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Vanessa Brierly, Daniel Buys, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Londiwe Dhlomo, Keaton Ditchfield, Toni Jean Erasmus, Devon Flemmer, Zane Gillion, Nurit Graff, Nathan Kruger, Sebe Leotlela, Clint Lesch, Brandon Lindsay, Phumi Mncayi, Bongi Mthombeni, Raquel Munn, L J Neilson, Mark Richardson, Phillip Schnetler, Craig Urbani, Natasha van der Merwe, Steven van Wyk and Charmaine Weir-Smith, and an off-stage band under the direction of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra: Donny Bouwer (trumpet), Jason Green (bass), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Dan Selsick (trombone), Kuba Silkiewicz (guitar), Brian Smith (reeds), P W van der Walt (drums), Daline Wilson (violin), at the Opera Theatre in the State Theatre complex, Pretoria, until October 9. Call 012 392 4000 or visit statetheatre.co.za