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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Same differences, different sameness and the glory of being seven

Freckleface

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/

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

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.

Freckleface Strawberry: Good on the eye, sweet on the heart

 

Bouncing and bounding onto stage in choreographic sequences — designed by Shelley Adriaanzen — which are satisfying to behold, is a fabulous young cast, telling a tale as old as time itself: The inestimable sadness of being different in a world where your greatest desire is to fit in with everyone else. And, not a story about a misfit duck or a child who’s smaller than the rest of them, but along the same themes, it’s a plea, with autobiographical undertones from playwright Julianne Moore that would warm the cockles of the hearts of most people, especially South African artist Anthea Pokroy, who has created a considerable body of work on the issue: to be red-haired and freckled really does distinguish a child from the rest of the pack.

Armed with caveats like “you don’t have to be the best at what you do, but you do have to love it,” the play, directed by Francois Theron, could very easily have slipped into silly schlock, but it retains its frisky freshness, against an ingenious set by Stan Knight. The cast of young adults, including relatively heavy-weights in the industry, Sarah Richard, Abel Knobel and Sihle Ndaba as well as Marike Smith, in the lead, clearly take what they are doing very seriously and in turn yield a delightful product, which is good on the eye and sweet on the heart.

Strawberry is seven years old. She has just learned to ride a two-wheeler, she’s losing some milk teeth, and she loves who she is and how she fits in to the general scheme of things in her world. That is, until her world realises that she’s different from them. And the ensuing teasing bruises her. Badly enough to make her want to hide from the whole world. There are some bizarre sequences in which she is chased by a band of evil freckles, and a give and take of characters and actors that flesh out an understanding of Strawberry’s domestic life. And ultimately a denouement in which Strawberry learns to embrace herself with gladness.

With deliciously stand-out performances by Smith as well as Dale Scheepers, the work also features demurely lovely and unaccompanied songs sung by Sarah Richard. The only draw-back in this utterly lovely bit of young people’s entertainment is the fact that Sihle Ndaba, a performer with an absolutely exquisite voice, as fans of Seussical Jr and Kwela Bafana will attest, doesn’t get to shine. She remains one of the company and her unique voice never does reach beyond that of her peers.

You’ll need a couple of tissues handy in this frank and articulate reflection on childish cruelty, self-hatred and embarrassment, but will leave the theatre a little lighter, a little happier.

  • Freckleface Strawberry, with music and lyrics by Gary Kupper, based on the books written by Julianne Moore, is directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervisor), Shelley Adriaanzen (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Emma Victoria Hayden, Abel Knobel, Sean Louw, Sihle Ndaba, Lindi Niemand, Sarah Richard, Dale Scheepers and Marike Smith, and is playing at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 20 (011)484-1584.
  • A version of this review appears in the current week’s issue of the SA Jewish Report (www.sajr.co.za)