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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Magic in a tree at the National Children’s Theatre

Telling it to the kids: Mamohato Askew with Paige Schmidt, Boitumelo Phaho and Nandipha Backler. Photograph supplied.

Telling it to the kids: Mamohato Askew with Paige Schmidt, Boitumelo Phaho and Nandipha Backler. Photograph supplied.

There’s a certain kind of magic that comes of nostalgia onstage; it needs to be nipped in the bud before it sinks into maudlin silliness or utter irrelevance. When grownup nostalgia is mixed with child audiences, the dangers are obvious: you could lose their attention in a slippery self-indulgent jiffy. But magic really does happen in the presence of a baobab tree created for another project by Stan Knight, which the theatre inherited; and some quick thinking around storytelling models on the part of director Francois Theron makes Under the Baobab Tree have the infectious potential of a child’s classic. <<A version of this review appears in the SA Jewish Report of September 5. Visit http://www.sajr.co.za >>

It’s the kind of story that can embrace other stories. A good old man dies and he leaves the children in his community a great big treasure casket. It’s big. It’s heavy. And it’s filled with possibility. But maybe it is filled with a monster? After all, the script earnestly tells us that children know a monster can be anywhere.

Perhaps it is filled with money, and there’s a ruse in the tale that picks at this.

More significantly, the suitcase is a memory box of a whole range of triggers to happy memories. Including technology from the 1980s.

And the most important ingredient in all of this, is the music. From Johnny Clegg to Brenda Fassie, Miriam Makeba to Mango Groove, the sacred space created beneath the baobab tree is allowed to resonate beautifully with sound.

The production features three casts of three children, who lend it tone, cuteness and texture, but are tightly directed and not allowed to dominate. The telling of it is carried with precise and fleshed out performances, by the ilk of JT Medupe, Suzaan Helberg, Nonhla Mkhonto, Emkay Khanyile and Mamohato Askew, all of whom we have seen on this innovative little stage before.

While the absence of a tight choreographic hand is patent and bruises the show a little, it is the bright colours, sense of enthusiasm and genuinely fresh takes on old tales, from an African version of Cinderella, to a tale of a monster in a cupboard, to one of ant soccer that makes this play a joy.

More than all of this, Under the Baobab gives Afrikaans a voice. Helberg plays the kindly auntie who black kids in the audience roar at with mirth and disbelief when she uses a “white” body and a “white” voice to jive and click like the rest of them, in South African standards that will leave your eyes a little dewy.

There are tales of happily-ever-after, one with realistic and heartbreaking twists in its tail, and others bearing an unmistakable political thrust, but ultimately, this is a grand feel good show that instructs the littlies on how to celebrate themselves.

  •  Under the Baobab Tree, conceived and directed by Francois Theron and Sihle Ndaba, is designed by Stan Knight (set), Greg Angelo (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Mamohato Askew; Suzaan Helberg; Emkay Khanyile; JT Medupe; Nonhla Mkhonto; Mamohato Askew; as well as child performers: Nandipha Backler; Kopano Kutama; India Milne; Khawulani Myaka; Trent Kgodu Peta; Boitumelo Phaho; Paige Schmidt; Rufaro Shava; and Casey Watson. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until September 12.