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
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Venue fail in Little Shop of Horrors

"Feed me, Seymour!" Little Shop of Horrors's haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

“Feed me, Seymour!” Little Shop of Horrors’s haunting signature line, with Alan Committie as the hapless Seymour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

In this Hairspray-meets-Faustus 1960s-redolent musical, you get to experience the schlock-horror tradition from which musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show were spawned and blending some fabulous rock ‘n’ roll, doowop and Motown moves, Little Shop of Horrors is a hugely palatable production which engages with issues like urban decay, parochialism and abuse all couched in an unashamedly bizarre tale of a flesh-eating plant named Audrey II, which grows spectacularly through the show’s run.

Generally, in a show of this nature, it would be the plant itself that is the central focus and main character – and drawcard – but in this production, the cast and the set win over, in spite of a very vociferous and wittily positioned ‘Audrey II’. The joint-narrator, comprising Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon, performed by Dionne Song, Chantal Herman and Lelo Ramasimong respectively absolutely excels: the three, almost acting like a Greek chorus, lend the work the frisson of horror and camped up flippancy or added narrative that keeps it human and colourful; relative newcomers on Johannesburg’s stages, they’re fabulously cast and have exceptional character and voice.

With sterling performances by Michael Richard as Mr Mushkin, a stereotypical New York Skid Row Jewish businessman and Alan Committie, the hapless Seymour, thankfully holding himself back from too much ad libbing, the production has a kind of acid green-bubble gum pink flavour and this is its drawcard, perhaps, but also its downfall: the work in this theatre offers a technologically-rendered sound which is simply too big for the space, and it lacks nuance. It’s like a colour-by-number show where every element has the same level of intensity. And the effect, after your brain has synced to its rhythm, is deadening.

In this production, it’s like everything is ramped up as loud as possible and while the cast loyally and bravely do their best to retain focus and audience interest, sometimes that blend of really loud piped music that you feel in your molars and amplified vocals is so loud that you cannot hear the words. It’s not clear why this has been done: surely the technology of such a well-established theatre as Montecasino’s Pieter Toerien has the wherewithal to contain nuance or to make provision for what happens to a venue when it’s full of people.

It’s a pity as it reduces this otherwise delightful production, which features an utterly beautiful set that really steals the show, to an irritating squeaky squawkiness, which might well drive you away at interval – as the empty seats in the second half attested to, shortly after opening night.

  • Little Shop of Horrors is directed by Steven Stead, based on the book by Howard Ashman. It is designed by Alan Menken (music), Evan Roberts (original tracks), Justin Southey (musical direction), Janine Bennewith (choreography), Greg King (set), Tina le Roux (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound); with puppets by Greg King and Wendy Henstock. It is performed by Alan Committie; Zak Hendrikz; Chantal Herman; Brandon Moulder; Adam Pelkowitz; Lelo Ramasimong; Michael Richard; Dionne Song; Audrey van Litsenborgh; Jaco van Rensburg and Tim Wells, and is at Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, in Fourways, until August 9. 0115111818 or http://www.montecasinotheatre.co.za

Ketekang: celebrating so much, it hurts

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Performers in Ketekang. Photograph by Ruphin Coudyzer.

From the moment band leader Tshepo Mngoma lets rip into his electronic violin, in the opening number Bungazani, you are convinced that this anthology of music, theatre, dance and poetry will be extraordinary. And you won’t be wrong, but Ketekang is not without decision-making flaws, which bruise its impact.

Couched in celebratory cliché, the work is not monolithic, and boasts an unusual body of song, poetry and snippets of theatre in its repertoire of 30 works. In many, though, the narrative thread holding them relevant, is disappointingly absent.

What does pin the work together is the choreographic moments. By and large, choreographed and danced by Luyanda Sidiya and dancers associated with Vuyani Dance Theatre and Moving Into Dance Mophatong, they pepper Ketekang with a bold freshness which really takes your breath away. There’s a moment commemorating Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph of Hector Pieterson on June 16, 1976 which will etch itself into your heart. Embodying a sense of the urgency and horror of the situation, it is beautifully constructed, like a piece of poetry.

Similarly, there’s a paean to “dustbin men”, important characters in the grotesque pedestrianism of apartheid. It’s danced with a brusqueness and a sense of potency that will resonate with your heart.

But after the show, as you glance through the rich song list, you might be forgiven for thinking “Really?” There are too many really important iconic works here that jostle with each other for focus. With snatches of Athol Fugard, Khayelihle Dominique Gumede, Zakes Mda and Omphile Molusi, some of them too obscure to trigger memories of the full works, songs from the likes of John Legend, Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Hugh Masekela are pushed, cheek by jowl with snippets of poetry from people such as Fred Khumalo, Professor Keroopetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes, to name a few.

There’s an unmodulated richness to this work which makes you so heady your focus sways. And while there are references to dates: there’s a ‘1940’ on the back of one dancer, and the 1976 riots are beautifully clear, the trajectory of time is not convincingly developed, and the work does feel hurriedly put together, with no time for the piece to breathe easily and come into its own.

Also, there’s a jingling and a jangling between South African and American values, accents and works: it’s not clear what this is pitched at.

While the performers, including the gorgeous Aubrey Poo, Lesedi Job and Lebo Toko are honed and articulate and smooth as can be, there’s several jarring elements of discomfort. Costumes are not always comfortable on the bodies of the singers, which troubles the act of watching the work.

The production’s set is defined by a halo of barbed wire that surrounds the piece, teetering between a strangely celebratory image and one of oppression, and a curious interplay of spaces used in the theatre, which are innovative and exploratory, but not always comfortable to the viewer.

In short, Ketekang is magnificently celebratory: it showcases some of the finest musicians, singers and dancers on our stages right now, and gives voice to songs obscure and well known. But it’s a production in which you can’t easily see the wood for the trees and you become lost in the spectacular spectacle of it all. It just tries too hard.

  • Ketekang is directed by James Ngcobo with musical direction by Tshepo Mngoma, choreography by Luyanda Sidiya, set by Nadya Cohen, costumes by Nthabiseng Makone, lighting by Nomvula Molepo and sound design by Gladman Balintulo. It is performed by Caroline Borole; Nokukhanya Dlamini; Lesedi Job; Katlego Letsholonyana; Vuyelwa Maluleke; Mahlatsi Mokgonyana; Aubrey Poo; Sonia Radebe; Dionne Song; and Lebo Toko on stage and musicians Ezbie Moilwa; Godfrey Mgcina;Ntokozo Mgcina; Johan Mthethwa;and Sakhile Nkosi. It performs at the Market Theatre’s John Kani theatre until December 14.