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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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/