Victory in true style for Mr Toad

mrtoad

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.
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Squeak like a mouse, roar like a lion

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WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered a great big cuddly lion with a penchant for roaring loudly at times of great emotion, in your local municipal library? This fabulous little yarn created by Michelle Knudsen and brought to musical life onstage under the directorial hand of Francois Theron debuts at the National Children’s Theatre as its current touring production, will set many a junior primary school child alight with the magic that one can find all quietly tucked into the books of the library.

Designed for a three-to-six year old audience, the work is bold, with clear-to-understand songs and a narrative to make you laugh with its sheer solemn sense of possibility. Showcasing siblings Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi as Kevin, Michelle and Jenny respectively, the three young library users who make friends with this great big somewhat bewildered beastie (Gamelihle Bovana), the work is supported by an utterly ingenious set by Stan Knight, which lends itself to simply casting library mystique over the context of the NCT’s stage in Parktown as well as any regular classroom in any primary school.

And supported by strict rule-keeper librarians Mr McBee (Kabelo Lethoba) and Miss Merriweather (Kayli ‘Elit Smith), who are strident, competent and shrill in their rule abiding way, as grown ups should be, if you’re three years old, the work enjoys the catalyst of the storytelling lady, played by Veronique Mensah, and the inimitable lion himself. It’s a fabulous foil for snippets of tales from the Aesop’s fable involving a lion and a mouse, to C S Lewis’s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, not to mention many an angry, or hungry or naughty lion that crops up in children’s literature.

While teetering very slightly towards the text heavy before interval, the work is sprinkled lovingly with song and dance, but it is Bovana’s characterisation of this great and gentle, curious and respectful, but by and large wordless king of the jungle with such humanity and empathy that points irrevocably to the moral values caught in the upper reaches of this play.

What you come away with is not only an appreciation that some rules can be bent under specific circumstances, and that knowing why rules exist is a tremendous stimulus for being able to honour them, but even more than that, you in the audience are left reflecting on the point of view of the outsider – he may be a lion, but he may also be a child with different physical needs, or a child who doesn’t speak the language, or a newcomer. He needs to be embraced.

And more than all of this is the celebration of the humble institution of the library. It’s certainly something that needs this society’s attention. Rather urgently.

  • Library Lion based on the eponymous 2006 book by Michelle Knudsen, is adapted for stage by Eli Bijaoui and directed by Francois Theron, with design by Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Drew Rienstra (music direction) and Nicol Sheraton (choreography). It is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Kabelo Lethoba, Veronique Mensah and Kayli ‘Elit Smith and a child cast comprising Tlotlego, Tlhopilwe and Tlholego Mabitsi, as the touring production of the National Children’s Theatre, until February 28. It is touring to primary schools in Gauteng and performs at the NCT in Parktown on Saturdays. Call 011 484 1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za

Oz: the sumptuous sum of all its parts

The Look of Enthusiasm says it all. Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the  Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children's Theatre.

The look of enthusiasm says it all: Dorothy (Emma Hayden) centre, with her new found friends: the Tin Man who has no heart (Sean Louw); the Scarecrow who has no brain (Phillip Schnetler); and the cowardly Lion (Gamelihle Bovana). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

Just when you think that you may have seen the Wizard of Oz – first brought to the silver screen in 1939 with a young Judy Garland in the starring role – enough times, along comes a production like this, bursting at the seams with the kind of freshness and enthusiasm which has the power to take young audience members and transport them for the rest of their lives.

Director Francois Theron has magicked a brand new version of this work which teeters, narratively, between the insanity and surrealism of the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the standard tradition of a yarn like that that informs The Lord of the Rings. It offers a moral by way of a caveat in understanding that things are seldom what they seem and that dreams need to be followed to their logical conclusion, which is wrapped in a bit of sugar and a lot of really top class lyrics, like Somewhere over the rainbow.

There’s not really much that can be done to the tale of Dorothy from Kansas who unwittingly unseats and destroys a wicked witch when her house is blown away by a twister, and meets some idiosyncratic friends en route to finding her way home, but there are subtle tweaks and gestures, which pay important tribute to the film traditions behind the work, and indeed, to the original text, first published in 1900.

With Devon Flemmer as the debonair emcee and tiered curtains evocative of 1950s traditions, the tone is set: and the magic happens from curtain up to curtain down.

The show, featuring shadow manipulation and tight creative engineering is directly premised on the presence of a book: characters jump out of the larger than life publication on set and the emcee himself is armed with an encyclopaediac version of the text that he reads from.

While local children might struggle to understand the deep American southernness of the accents that predominate, particularly on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm, they will be blown away by the perfection of the colour, light, choreography and sequences, which simply exude faultlessness in their placement and construction; with the cherry on top being fabulous costume design, completely appropriate to the work’s history and tradition.

Patricia Boyer as the Wicked Witch who remains undefeated, until Dorothy (Emma Victoria Hayden) gets into a tussle with a bucket of water, is deliciously incomparable. The role she casts is not unadulterated evil, as we have seen her do elsewhere; rather this physically monumental and monumentally fine performer pegs her evilness down a step or two, creating an unspoken bond of complicity with the children in the audience on the cushions on the floor. She’s an evil witch tempered by an insecurity that makes her human and completely appropriate.

The singing and dancing stakes are not as sophisticated and tight as they were in this theatre’s previous production of the same work, and similarly the dollop of nostalgia is a little diluted; but the work in entirety is beautifully honed, imminently satisfying and smile-inspiring.

When you can vicariously watch a show of this nature through the focus of a little six year old boy who remains completely transfixed throughout its run, you know they’re doing something right.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is adapted and directed by Francois Theron from the original book by L. Frank Baum. It is designed by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Stan Knight (set); Caitlin Clerk (choreographer); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes) and features performances by Gamelihle Bovana; Patricia Boyer; Devon Flemmer; Emma Victoria Hayden; Suzaan Helberg; Sean Louw; Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri; Nomonde Matiwane and Phillip Schnetler; and child performances by Sakhenati Faniso; Tamara Faniso; Samuel Hertz; Katlego Matihake; Hloniphile Myaka; Khawulani Myaka; Gabriella Oliveira; Boitumelo Phaho; Buddy Sacks; Rufaro Shava; Sebastian Steiner; and Ricci Waksman. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until  performs at POP Arts in the Maboneng Precinct, downtown Johannesburg until December 21.