Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

Tiger

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.
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Lost in the Wood

robinhood

DIRECTIONLESS and forlorn: Little John (Phumci Mncayi) and Friar Tuck (Desmond Dube), doing the traffic light jive in their bid to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Photograph by Mariola Biela.

INDEED, THE SILLY season is already upon us. But silly is as silly does and when the volume and strobes in an auditorium are ramped up to deafen and blind an audience in order to compensate for a messy hodge-podge of a story featuring political- and market-related humour that is so tired you have to be seriously drunk to laugh, you can only despair. Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood the city’s highly punted pantomime for the year, takes silly to a new level of incompetence. It features so much self-indulgent clap-trap in its narrative flow, choice of music and ribaldry that not only does the story lose its way spectacularly, but it is also crushed under the weight of too many agendas.

With stand-out performances by Graham Hopkins as the evil villain Norman the Nasty Sheriff of Nottingham; Kate Normington in the role of an Irish geriatric fairy called Silly Sylviana, the Spirit of the Forest; Desmond Dube as Friar Tuck and the very talented Dale Scheepers as one of the hapless ‘babes in the wood’, Tokkel; it is not the performers or the choreographers who can be condemned. They do their best. They’re immensely skilled. But they’re working in a context which so lacks narrative definition that it feels as though anything goes. The work is an unsuccessful mashing together of a bunch of tales surrounding Robin Hood, the medieval activist who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, and that of Hansel and Gretel, two poor children condemned by a nasty step mother to die in the forest. Both these central classics are pinned to poverty, patronage politics and corruption rhetoric specific to the time in which we live, only it’s not funny.

Sadly the political shenanigans of the time have been so widely laughed at, analysed, criticised and condemned by all and sundry that the humour has begun to pall. And in this production in particular, it’s as subtle and nuanced as a sledge-hammer hitting a fly.

Where the two tales meet and why they’re pushed together is a mystery. Pantomime is traditionally such a complex and bawdy bit of burlesque to begin with, it’s not clear why this production needed even more frills than normal by taking on two stories at once.

The requisite over the top drag character is played by LJ Urbani with immensely tragic make-up, in the role of the wicked step-mother, but the moments of genuine hilarity are few and far between. If you can look beyond the arbitrary and irresponsible use of strobes, and forget that the sound is at such a decibel level that you feel the vibration in your teeth, there’s still not much left, particularly for the littlies. When this production is not messily presented in its narrative, it’s seriously scary or crudely cruel. Thus the entertainment value is substituted for a kind of sensory assault. If that’s your thing, you might love it. When audiences of large scale musicals shout hysterically on cue at every drum roll, it’s either because they think they should, or because they’re crying about the money they’ve just spent so badly. In terms of big shows fitting the family entertainment bill for the end of year treat, this one certainly doesn’t cut it.

  • Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood is written and directed by Janice Honeyman. Featuring design by Graham McLusky (lighting), Rowan Bakker (musical director), Richard Smith (sound), Bronwyn Lovegrove (costume co-ordinator), Nicol Sheraton (choreographer), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Izak Davel, Desmond Dube, Darius Engelbrecht, Clive Gilson, Nurit Graff, Kyra Green, Graham Hopkins, Dirk Joubert, Dolly Louw, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri, Noni Mkhonto, Phumi Mncayi, Candida Mosoma, Bongi Mthombeni, Tshepo Ncokoane, Kate Normington, Carmen Pretorius, Dale Scheepers, LJ Urbani, Natasha Van Der Merwe, Maryanne Van Eyssen and Jaco Van Rensburg. It features a live band under the baton of Rowan Bakker and Drew Rienstra on keyboards, comprised Deon Kruger (guitar), Kuba Silkiewicz (bass) and PW Van Der Walt (drums), and is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until December 30. Call 0861 670 670 or visit joburgtheatre.com

The wisdom of Pippi

pippi

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

khokho

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.

Tamed by the Little Prince

littleprince

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

Lovely panto: pity about the lights

What a gal: Tobie Cronje's fabulous Dame Nora Nursey. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

What a gal: Tobie Cronje’s fabulous Dame Nora Nursey. Photograph courtesy Joburg Theatre.

If you or your child don’t mind hectic lashings of strobe lights and multiple doses of high impact bass noise, you’re in for a splendid treat at this year’s pantomime in Johannesburg, Sleeping Beauty, directed by Janice Honeyman.

Featuring the inimitable Tobie Cronjé, as Dame Nora Nursey, who almost steals the show with his utterly delicious persona, the show’s a non-stop rollercoaster of broadly one dimensional and blatantly commercially-hooked  jokes, with oft nimble wordage, quick and rude innuendo, crisp and lovely choreography and a sense of cohesion that is second to none, ticking all the boxes of the panto genre, which reaches all the way back to 16th century England where it was born. As it should, it brings a tale of romance and terror, trickery and magic that we all know, inevitably making the pretty stars – Christopher Jaftha and Nicole Fortuin as the golden couple – work much harder to gain audience attention, than the ones more wildly and colourfully exuding character – including a delightful Jester Crackerjack (Clive Gilson) and Wicked Fairy Kakkamella Khakibos (Michelle Botha).

But like anything with too many special effects, or a dessert with too much sugar, it suffers a casualty in the watchability department because of those wretched lights, ripping their way through your sensibilities to ensure that you are suitably startled every time a joke is cracked or the bad fairy (Botha in immensely fine form) appears on the scene to do some khakibos mischief. Oh, and there are some tricks which got the littlies seriously screaming with what sounded like terror that didn’t really get laughed away.

Having said that, there’s a fluorescent pink crispness and a sense of cohesion that makes this panto stand out from previous manifestations, featuring, as it does, everything from pretty little ballerinas to cultural references that reach from the 1976 American film Network to our president’s latest bit of parliamentary bluster, but it is nevertheless a dire pity that effectively, the magical measuring tool for these lights that blast directly into your eyes, seems to have been broken in the production’s recipe. The end of year pantomime at the Nelson Mandela theatre over the last 20-odd years, has become such a powerful fixture in the calendar of Johannesburg that people book a year in advance for it. It effectively signifies that the end of the year is nigh and that after a long series of challenges, the broader community can kick back its collective heels and have a rest. But if you’re prone to migraine or seizure, don’t go: while the theatre is responsible in warning that there are strobes, if you close your eyes every time an invasive streak of synthetic lightning blasts its way through your sensibilities, you might miss almost the whole show.

  • Sleeping Beauty: The Pantomime of your Dreams! is written and directed by Janice Honeyman, with directorial assistance from Timothy Le Roux, features design by Bronwen Lovegrove (costumes), Graham McLusky (lighting), Trevor Peters (sound), Marga Sandler (musical director) and Nicol Sheraton (choreographer). It is performed by Matthew Berry, Michelle Botha, Tobie Cronjé, Kiruna-Lind Devar, Keaton Ditchfield, Daniel Fisher, Nicole Fortuin, Clive Gilson, Suzaan Helberg, Christopher Jaftha, Bisi Bangiwe Kajobela, Michele Levin, Sean John Louw, Venolia Manale, Timothy Moloi, Candida Mosoma, Tshepo Ncokoane, Sarah Richard, Dale Scheepers, Dionne Song, LJ Urbani, Maryanne van Eyssen and Mary-Jane Zimri, featuring dancers Robert van den Aardweg, Tayla Anderson, Alexia Bazzo, Michaela Fairon, Alexa Lipchin, Winita Main, Leroy Mokgatle, Tyla Amber Spieth, Bobby Strong and Crystal Viljoen and musicians Deon Kruger, Sipumao Trueman Lucwaba, Drew Reinstra and PW van der walt, at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Braamfontein, until December 30. Visit joburgtheatre.com

Stiff challenges well met in Heidi

The Alm-Uncle (Grant Towers) and Heidi (Megan Rigby). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The Alm-Uncle (Grant Towers) and Heidi (Megan Rigby). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Children’s theatre has the license to take the idea of soppy and stretch it to biblical proportions, which enables adults and children alike in the audience to cry with empathetic abandon, as the characters can declare love for one another with the kind of fierce naïve sentimentality that on a grown-up stage would be laughed out the door on cynical tide.

This happens gloriously in the National Children’s Theatre’s latest production, Heidi in a stage adaptation by Francois Theron. Written in 1880 by Johanna Spyri, the story of the girl from the Alps has been loved by generations of young readers – it was screened on South African TV from 1979, in the form of a Japanese anime series – and is understood to be by far the most popular Swiss piece of literature ever published, but a closer look at it reveals a harsh tale coloured with cruelty and disappointment and the nuances of class in 19th century Europe.

Heidi – or Adelheid, as she is more formally named in smart Swiss society – (Megan Rigby) is a hapless child. Orphaned as a toddler, she is raised by her aunt Dete, who is a governess (Emilie Owen), until she’s about five. And then a job prospect teeters the severe woman into dropping her young niece into the context of her uncle, a man who lives in the Alps with only the goats and the landscape as succour (Grant Towers). The uncle, a big, bearded man has a reputation for being scary, one that he honours with aplomb, treasuring his solitude, as he does.

No sooner is the little girl settled in the magnificent Alps, where she gets to laugh and play and imbibe the air and goats’ milk alongside goatherd Peter (Dale Scheepers), to say nothing of exposing a secret part of her grandfather’s heart, a situation under the stern eye of aunt Dete develops for her: to be the companion to a young wheelchair-bound girl, Clara (Caitlin Salgado), in the posh city of Frankfurt, and once again, the child has to undergo an emotional volte face to confront a whole new world and figure out where she fits into all of it.

While the work is coloured by stereotypes – all the governesses are merciless to the point of sadism – the narrative is conveyed with an authoritative directorial pen. The complexity of the tale is handled with wisdom and an intimate knowledge of the theatre’s audience: whilst it grapples with difficult abstract concepts like death and love, immorality and class discrepancy, it does so adeptly, offering the story in clean lines and balancing it with musical forays, which sparkle with sincerity, but never overbalance into too much schmaltz.

Choreographically and musically, this is a large work, which belies, but doesn’t undermine the theatre’s tiny space. The gestures are wide and generous, the songs sung with a bigness of force and the dancing is celebratory: half close your eyes and you can imagine it all happening on a grander stage.

And challenges of the tale itself aside, once again, the theatre presents a delicious young cast headed by Megan Rigby in the eponymous role opposite Grant Towers as the uncle with a secret inner life. The casting of these two newcomers to South African theatre is absolutely impeccable and both rise to the occasion, articulating the bold emotions, yet three-dimensional sense of spirit of both fairly complicated characters with conviction and intelligence.

  • Heidi, written by Johanna Spyri in 1880, is adapted and directed by Francois Theron. It is performed by Daniel Fisher, Jana Louw, Venolia Manale, Emilie Owen, Megan Rigby, Caitlin Salgado, Dale Scheepers and Grant Towers, and designed by Graham Brown and Stan Knight (set); Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreography); and Jane Gosnell (lighting), and performs at the National Children’s Theatre, Parktown until April 12: 011 484 1584.