The wisdom of Pippi

pippi

WHAT: Me worry? Not a chance. Pippi (Yarden Dagan) confronts the establishment: the welfare officer Mrs Prysselius (Sandy Bota) with the cops, Klang (Graeme Wicks) and Kling (Marvin Molepo). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

NOËL COWARD ARTICULATED it first in his 1935 song: Children on stage are complicated. They haven’t the work ethic of professionals. They can lose their hold on their character when they recognise people in the audience. Their parents can be the thing that pushes them into the limelight. They can grow irritatingly precocious, show off and bruise their role. But when you discover a child capable of graciously sidestepping all those clichés, you’ve got to hold tight: Eleven-year-old Yarden Dagan captures this spunky maverick with a maturity beyond her years and an ability to seduce the audience which simply makes this show fly.

Not that the adult casting for this work is shabby or lacking in any way. Indeed, headed by Luciano Zuppa, who plays an utterly delightful Captain Longstocking and Thunder, one of the incompetent crooks; and Sandy Bota, as the inimitable Mrs Prysselius who blends prissyness and bossiness with a real ability to jive, the work is bold and beautiful and beggars comparison with the version that this theatre produced some years ago.

It’s got to do with the magic ingredient of the children themselves, and the astute wisdom of the play’s director, Francois Theron, to know when and where it is appropriate to cast the littlies. This Pippi Longstocking is a sheer delight: in terms of how the work engages the audience, how the child herself is able to give this naughty little girl who was invented in the 1940s contemporary flesh and blood that is unapologetically rooted in Sweden and unapologetically about thumbing a nose to convention.

But something has to be said for that wig alone. Complementing a fantastically detailed body of costumes by Sarah Roberts, the characteristic red Pippi wig with plaits akimbo almost deserves a credit of its own. Poking into the eyes of the neighbouring kids, Tommy (Matthew Rusznyak) and Annika (Rufaro Shava), it’s cheeky and raucous and completely solid in how it embraces Pippi’s values and personality.

Like the Harvey Comics character Little Lotta, in a sense, Pippi Longstocking is amazingly strong. She’s also super-likeable for her peers, has total disdain for regimented order and pattern and is feared and detested by the adult community, for this reason. Indeed, the work presents the adults in it as considerably unsophisticated in their values. Pippi is a wild child, who arrives out of nowhere in suburbia, to live alone with her pet monkey called Mr Nielson and a horse in her kitchen. Her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is a pirate on the high seas. And armed with these credentials, and a big bag full of pirate gold, she’s an anomaly who can sing, dance and makes up life as she goes.

And the message: that life is about a lot more than following the rules or slipping into a puddle of self-pity. It’s about acting on instinct, about not being afraid to make mistakes and be vulnerable. And it’s about loving honestly and deeply.

  • Pippi Longstocking – The Musical is adapted for stage by Staffan Götestam, based on the eponymous children’s book by Astrid Lindgren. It is directed by Francois Theron and features design by Dale Scheepers (musical director), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Zoe Beavon, Sandy Bota, Marvin Molepo, Genevieve Olivier, Roberto Queiroz, Graeme Wicks and Luciano Zuppa, and three child casts, comprising Hannah Cohen, Yarden Dagan, Simone Greely, Khensani Mabaso, Gabriel Poulson, Matthew Rusznyak, Rufaro Shava, Max Stern and Ricci Waksman [this review is based on the work featuring Yarden Dagan, Matthew Rusznyak and Rufaro Shava] at the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown, Johannesburg, until October 16. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
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Oliver brings the sheen and texture of Industrial Age London to Parktown, seamlessly

"He asked for more?!" with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy www.jozikids.co.za

“He asked for more?!” with Samuel Hertz as Oliver, Kayli Elit Smith and Miles Petzer as Mr and Mrs Bumble and Ben Kgosimore as the Beadle. Photograph courtesy http://www.jozikids.co.za

Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one of those stories that has been consumed by the children’s theatre industry, thanks in part to the eponymous West End and Broadway musicals of the 1960s featuring glorious songs by Lionel Bart. It’s also been deemed a children’s story because the main protagonist is but 9 years old. In truth, the tale is a quirky one, bringing together the harsh contradictory morals and deeply violent behaviour endemic to the squalor of 19th century English society. In this version of the work, Francois Theron yields a sterling mastery that balances between the heaviness of the original piece and how the musicals injected sweetness and readability into it.

Part of the work’s sublime success is through the creation of its texture; the stuff of which Industrial Age London is made. From the signage on the walls to the raggedy and posh curtains which signify the set change, life is germinated and fleshed out in the set, costumes and the casting of the work.

Showcasing Kayli Elit Smith in the role of Nancy, opposite Luciano Zuppa as the inimitable Fagin and Ben Kgosimore, the core of the story is embraced with a sense of crafted verity that will keep you spellbound, whether you are five years old and have a scant understanding of the work’s tensions, dynamics and trajectory, or you are fifty and have read the original 15 times. Smith has a powerful stage presence and she gives the fragile, tragic heroine Nancy the spine and guts to make her leap out of the book and onto the stage.

Zuppa projects a roly-poly Fagin, offering insight into the sinister nuances that such a character upholds. He’s fun, yet immoral, bad yet it’s difficult to pinpoint his level of evilness, in contradistinction, for instance, with Kgosimore’s Bill Sykes, who is so chillingly cold, his very presence makes your hair stand on end.

There’s a satisfying interplaying of cast members and the children are beautifully co-ordinated to sing and dance and interact with the theatre’s appurtenances which brings grubby suburban London into Parktown, seamlessly. On opening night, Gabriel Poulsen was Oliver. He embraces the realities of this small boy in a world rotten with other people’s greed that rendered him an able cog in their evil plans, with an integrity that belies his extreme youth.

But more than all of this, the story of the workhouse foundling Oliver Twist is told from the inside out and the novel only reveals the grand narrative at the end, where you encounter Agnes Leeford and understand who Monks is. Arguably, the only version of this work which turns it upside down is the 1999 mini-series of the work, written by Alan Bleasdale and featuring such luminaries as Robert Lindsay, Julie Walters and Keira Knightley, among others. And what is revealed when the audience is put in the know, while the narrative unfolds, is the fabric of the story is robust enough to take such a turn about.

Sadly, this is where the National Children’s Theatre’s version stumbles a little: it sticks to the original sequence of events and omits the more graphic ones. Granted, the tale is harsh and terrifying. Murder is part of the tools used to tell it. It would be inappropriate to present this level of horror to young audience members, but Theron has begun his version with the child telling his own story: this adds an inestimable value and depth to the material, but is not followed through in the second half of the work. Rather, after interval, we fast-forward through Twist’s tribulations in coming to terms with his extraordinary childhood. Nancy is magicked off the scene and Oliver becomes a child adopted and everyone lives happily ever after: if you know the narrative well, or have been watching the play carefully, a couple of untied threads peek through.

Overall, this is forgivable: The Adventures of Oliver Twist is an exceptional production that blends sweetness with harshness in a way that never jars. But be warned, the tale wriggles and squirms and diversifies and changes tack frequently. It’s not all song and dance and children under the age of 8 might become restless or bewildered.

  • The Adventures of Oliver Twist, based on the novel by Charles Dickens is adapted and directed by Francois Theron with design by Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor); Nicol Sheraton (choreographer); Graham Brown (set); Willie van Staden (scenic set up); Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Chriselda Pillay (costumes). It is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Ben Kgosimore, Miles Petzer, Schoeman Smit, Kayli Elit Smith and Luciano Zuppa, with four alternative child performers playing Oliver: Samuel Hertz, Gabriel Katz, Gabriel Poulsen and Max Stern, and three alternate child ensemble casts comprising: Claire de Korte, Lethabo Mwase, Boitumelo Phaho, Kathryn Price, Paige Schmidt and Isobel Shires; Kathleen Clark, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi, Tlhotlego Mabitsi, India Milne, Julia Smith and Casey Watson; and Nandipha Backler, Yarden Dagan, Pascalle Durand, Talitha Komen, Tyler Komen and Ricci Waksman. It is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 19. 011-484-1584 or nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za