Of snake shenanigans and trouser vipers

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MY lips are sealed: Funny guys Ben Voss and John van de Ruit.

THE POLITICAL, SEXUAL and otherwise social hooliganism of us South Africans, big and small, black and white make for constantly fertile material with which to play. Particularly if you’re John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Their Mamba brand, coined in 2002, is still going strong with classic and new sketches and skits that reach as close to the bone – or the boner – as they dare, and come up laughing each time and in this regard and with this premise in mind, Mamba Republic does not disappoint.

From the wiles and faux pas of Parliament (on a soccer field) to an essay on the idiocy of masculinity, Mamba Republic, in evoking the kind of spoofs devised and presented by Spike Jones and the City Slickers in the 1940s, offers sketch upon sketch upon sketch. Not all of them work well, but there are so many, at such nimble and close succession, rapidly firing into the audience, as they tease apart the ludicrous and the downright outrageous that have adorned the South African landscape, of late, that you quickly overlook the ones which didn’t make you laugh out loud.

You won’t forget the hilarious interviews with “Pest means Business” and “President Gupta”, which tosses up the earnestness of tv shows of this nature, throwing finance minister jokes with hilarious abandon into the mix. You won’t forget a spoof of Idols, which is about racist behaviour and silliness. And you most certainly won’t forget the way in which van de Ruit and Voss have taken cuisine to a new level of political humour. Theirs was the white whine which hit the funnies’ headlines some years ago, and this repartee still pushes forth, sending up everything from corruption in the SABC to the draconian frowns of political incorrectness.

This is easy and good entertainment: the puns and jokes are there, as they are in the news broadcasts, and the work offers a flow of dialogue, mockery and giggles which takes apart all the South African stereotypes in all their vulnerabilities to laugh at how they tick. Too nifty to be offensive, too gentle to hurt, the Mamba brand is an excellent one and a real crowd pleaser.

  • Mamba Republic is written by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss. Directed by Dr Mervyn McMurtry, it features lighting design by Michael Taylor-Broderick and is performed by John van de Ruit and Ben Voss at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton, until August 20. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606.
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More hilarious horror from the news

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A man for all caricatures: Daniel Mpilo Richards. Photograph courtesy Auto & General Theatre on the Square.

YET ANOTHER BRISTLING piece of repartee, rich and seething with the material spewed out by our world, Mike van Graan’s State Fracture is a fitting sequel to his Pay Back the Curry, which graced this theatre at the end of last year. Boasting the same cast and team, the work is as slick and quick and biting as ever: and while you’re laughing, with the knife-edge flick of a nuance, the work turns sinister, freezing that grin on your face. It’s the genius of director Rob van Vuuren and van Graan with Daniel Mpilo Richards at the proverbial coal face that makes this collaborative energy so fresh, tight and cohesive.

Like Pay Back the Curry, this revue of different characters, from Dean the front man at the Saxonwold Shebeen; to a local battery chicken who resents the American chicks with their fat brine-infused thighs; to Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a man so full of Jesus and the SABC he knows not one from the other, offers a peek at the madness, the alternative facts and the blatant stupidity within. The lyrics of songs by Abba, Leonard Cohen and Bob Marley are gutted and reinstated in van Graan’s characteristically sophisticated and angry manner to hilarious effect which will keep you restraining those guffaws because you need to hear all the words and consider how they resonate with the originals. Like Pay Back the Curry, and novels such as Paige Nick’s recent Unpresidented, the work will date rapidly, but it is articulating stories and scenarios which are relevant, and in doing so, it serves an important function in society.

As you sit there, in the audience, however, something else might flicker through your sensibilities. It has to do with works such as the 1972 Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, in which Joel Gray, the inimitable MC represents the messy and rotten state of the world at the time, situated as it is in the 1930s – between the wars – with humour and horror spiced by song so richly cooked together it makes your head spin. What van Graan is doing in work of this nature is holding a mirror up to society – as do practitioners such as political jester Pieter-Dirk Uys and political cartoonist Zapiro. While State Fracture is a couple of spoofs too many (or too similar), which finds your focus dwindling toward the end, it’s a well-crafted work that hits the mark. Resoundingly.

  • State Fracture is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Rob Van Vuuren. It features creative input by Stephanie Papini (lighting) and is performed by Daniel Mpilo Richards at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until July 29. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883-8606.

If we had nothing but love

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BREL trio: Jannie du Toit leads Chanie Jonker (left) and Susan Mouton. Photograph courtesy Auto and General Theatre on the Square.

THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like a dollop of Brel on a cold winter evening to warm the cockles of your heart. Embraced as schmaltz by generations of song-lovers everywhere, the rough and drunken, sad and maudlin brilliance of Belgian singer/songwriter Jacques Brel (1929-1978) bring together a mix of wisdom and poetry in a way that reminds you why his songs are unequivocal classics; they’re songs that can knock generations-old memories to the foreground within their first three bars and it doesn’t even matter what language they’re sung in.

Led by Jannie du Toit on vocals in English and Afrikaans, French and Flemish, this collection of 20-odd songs are deliciously hand-picked, and feature a gentle extrapolation on the lyrics before the performance of each song. They’re magnificent pieces, some boasting the status of “Brel anthems” and others less well known but no less beautiful, but in performance, they’re sadly not always as crisp and audible as you might wish: the cheek mic on du Toit’s face and the mics on the instruments tend to grind the sound together in a way that flattens it, and the physical arrangement of the stage lacks the kind of finesse that you might expect in a Brel production.

All of this is, however, utterly forgivable. What this production lacks in polish, it makes up for in heart. Du Toit’s reputation as a Brel specialist is significant, and stretches over decades: his rendition in all four languages is utterly competent, with his Madeleine in Flemish topping the evening with a mix of pizzazz and clowning, poetry and tragedy all rolled together.

This heart-warming show doesn’t aspire or pretend to be anything more or less than a body of beautiful work celebrated by seasoned musicians. And you’ll leave with a spring in your step and a song in your heart and a tear or two on your cheek.

  • Bonjour Monsieur Brel is compiled by Juanita Swanepoel comprising songs originally written by Jacques Brel. It features creative input by Clinton Zerf, Matthys Maree, Coenraad Rall, and Jannie du Toit (musical arrangements) and is performed by Jannie du Toit (vocals and guitar), Susan Mouton (cello and piano), Chanie Jonker/Coenraad Rall (piano and piano accordion). It performs until July 16 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Mind the gap: an essay on elegant dishonesty

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AWKWARD reminiscences: Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) and Emma (Carly Graeme) meet in a pub. Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S THE SILENCES and gaps between words and the construction of the unspoken beat in this intriguing Pinter work, that lends it its potency and dramatic verve, but it is this potency mixed with extremely classy performances, an understated set and an unequivocal elegance that gives it the edge that keeps you focused. However, as the play reaches closure, you might question yourself as to whether there can be such a thing as just too much elegance and too many manners.

And as the name dictates, Betrayal is a tale of complicity and untruths. Of secrets and lies. And of revelations.  Emma (Carly Graeme) is married to Robert (Antony Coleman). She’s a gallerist. He’s an editor of a poetry journal. They have two small children.

And for a period of seven years, Emma has had a lover. He knows. Her husband, that is. She knows he knows. But does the lover know she knows he knows? Without the classic English understatedness, this narrative could descend into farcical humour, but it’s kept tight and succinct, demure and hilarious in its own capacity.

We meet Emma and Jerry (Tom Fairfoot) in a pub. They’re excruciatingly awkward with one another, but as they hem and haw and blurt out long sentences of memories of their friendship, and then retract them, you quickly realise this was no ordinary association. Love came into the mix.

But then it left.

This is a tale of how men and women dialogue over the deed of love, sex and relationships. It’s beautiful in its elegance, somewhat anachronistic in its costume choices – this is, after all, a period between 1968 and 1977 as the projection tells us – and the clothes the characters wear are a lot more refined than the period dictated. That said, the Bauhaus-style furnishings that quietly comprise the set are as fitting and as versatile as necessary: they’re just right.

One of the biggest challenges of a play of this nature is the danger of the work descending into blandness. Indeed, once you’ve figured out all the different levels of betrayal articulated from scene to scene, there seems little else, and the plot is exactly that – an unravelling of several intrigues. Looking at it in this capacity, the conclusion of the piece seems unsatisfying: but this is less a criticism of the work invested in it than a reflection of the original.

What happens next after the philandering partners have owned up? Why, that’s another whole story, you might suggest. Betrayal is an elegant, eminently watchable and utterly competent work to watch.

  • Betrayal is written by Harold Pinter and directed by Greg Homann. It features design by Homann (set) and Oliver Hauser (lighting), is performed by Antony Coleman, Jose Domingos, Tom Fairfoot and Carly Graeme until July 1 at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za

Nothing to fear, Gruffalo’s here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mariachi and his Song of Love, Life, Death

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BELTING it out: The irrepressible James Cairns is El Blanco. Photograph courtesy The Luvvie.

 

ARMED WITH A big tummy and a tiny ukulele, James Cairns embodies a whole community of Mexicans in this fabulous piece of theatre, which is a rich and rambunctious amalgamation of everything from traditional Mexican narrative to the demonic beast of copywriting, some colourful fantasy and a bit of radio-style drama thrown in between. It’s swift and funny, sophisticated and self-deprecating and successfully calls upon the devil and God in one voice.

Put together by a highly skilled team of writers, designers and performers, El Blanco examines the path of a pale and freckled Mariachi and how he fares in a dark-skinned world of bias, ancient Egyptian obsidian stones and one in which he needs to whore out his song-writing skills in order to pay the rent. It’s a skilful and heady mix of the past and the potential future, with romance and madness, sadness and lies all cobbled together in a complex series of stories within stories.

And while Cairns has the gift of being able to twist his tongue and his persona into a myriad of different characters all at once, at times, you lose the tiny nuances of the tale, because there are so many voices present in it.  You don’t however, lose the thread of the work, which is like stepping into a delicious and irrevocably rich slice out of one of Gabriel García Marques’s novels, with all its idiosyncrasies, hairpin twists in story lines, thick and layered detail and gesture to make you look. And laugh. And forget yourself.

More than that, Cairns’s stage persona brings a whiff of Danny Kaye, a snort of Spike Jones and the City Slickers and a soupçon of BBC radio’s airs and graces from the 1970s. If you loved his performance opposite Taryn Bennett in The Snow Goose, staged recently in this theatre, you will be completely smitten by this wildly creative monodrama, which vies with loose and totally fabulous abandon between being immensely proper, and totally off the wall, with the flick of an eyebrow.

The rudimentary nature of the work’s set plays into the directness of the work and its uncontrived charm. But the balance of bare necessities and immense skill makes this a work you just don’t want to miss.

  • El Blanco: Tales of the Mariachi is written by Gwydion Beynon and directed by Jenine Collocott. It features design by João Orecchia (sound), Jenine Collocott (set) and Jemma Kahn (costumes) and is performed by James Cairns at Auto and General Theatre on the Square until April 8. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

What to do when your mother-in-law dishes up

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THE mystique of kosher: Chantal Stanfield plays herself in From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach. Photograph courtesy Theatre on the Square.

YOU KNOW THE story from the moment you look at the publicity images for this play. A bride and groom stand next to one another. He wears a yarmulke. She’s Coloured. The rest feels like it will be a miasma of stereotypes and schlock that will draws gusts of sometimes deeply uncomfortable laughter of recognition from the belly of a community fraught with levels of bias and idiosyncrasy. It’s about tradition. And South African Jews. And Coloureds. And by implication, you think it will be peppered with the blandness of well trodden cliché, references to cultural cuisine and low key inside jokes. But in making all these assumptions, you don’t anticipate the feisty, fresh and searing energy that Chantal Stanfield, the performer and writer of this direct and autobiographical piece brings.

Yes, it’s a tale of marriage across local cultures and one in which a wide-eyed Stanfield is exposed to the bizarre and unexplainable litanies of ritual in the practice of traditional orthodox Jewry, when she meets, falls in love with, and marries muso RJ Benjamin. It’s written with a frisky sense of wonder, and while it niftily skirts issues from crude racism to the complexity of benign hypocrisy, it makes for tight and immensely watchable theatre.

Stanfield, a Sewende Laan actress who we saw in Johannesburg in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author a couple of years ago, is one of those performers who you instantly fall in love with: she’s got a sense of presence that is easy on the eye and she fits comfortably in her own skin, rendering her first person narrative in this true story alternatively funny, deeply empathetic and critical almost to the point of cruelty, which heightens the hilarity stakes considerably and forces the whole business from becoming self-indulgent. The work is extremely polished, it’s exactly the right length and resonates with a slick inner rhythm that keeps you focused but never allows the piece to degenerate into the soft schlock that you may anticipate. It’s also a tightly pared down production, in design and set: all the frills and trimmings are described in a beautifully structured text, rich with nuance and wit.

From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach is a tale of uniqueness and curiosity blending the Malay doughnut with the East-European dumpling in such a way that it splays open the complex give and take between everything from Yiddish to Gayle, Muslim antipathies to kugel shallowness. It takes no prisoners in reflecting on the whims and idiosyncrasies of both sides of the wedding, and never stoops to being self-consciously romantic. It’s a love affair cast among the vagaries of Twitter, over protective mothering and culinary and other kinds of bias and is a joy from beginning to end.

  • From Koe’siestes to Kneidlach is written by Chantal Stanfield and directed by Megan Furniss. Featuring music arranged by Paul Choritz, it is performed by Chantal Stanfield at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until March 18. Visit theatreonthesquare.co.za or call 011 883 8606