Humbug, opaque Victorian language and a ghostly trio

Please Note: This production contains halogen lights shone directly into the audience’s eyes.

ChristmasCarol

BAH! Scrooge (Jason Ralph) on a bid to discover the ghost of Christmas Present. Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

IT SEEMS THAT Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol is the flavour of the season this year. There are no less than three manifestations in Johannesburg of this Victorian cautionary tale about a miser and how his ways have been changed by ghosts of his past and ghosts that point the way to a dire future, if he keeps up his parsimonious and downright horrid behaviour. This production, staged under the directorial pen of Elizma Badenhorst, she of the impeccable The Mystery of Irma Vep staged earlier this year at this theatre, lacks the pizzazz and directorial wisdom you might have expected.

While there’s nothing wrong with paring down a great classic and rendering its detail and texture bold and direct – as you may have seen in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of A Seussified Christmas Carol – it needs to be slick and carefully handled. And cognisance needs to be taken for people in the audience who are not completely familiar with the original story.

This production pulls out all the audio-visual tricks in the book. Some of them are astonishingly achieved, with animation, puppetry and masks, and a great sense of spooky whimsy is at times evoked. And there’s a fantastic quotation from the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo – the Renaissance artist who made portraits using painted foods – in the form of a giant and rambunctious mask but you need to be seated appropriately to get to see it.

Alas, the magic and whimsy evoked by some of the animation and the presence of the ghosts is not the general flavour of the work, however. At times the animation and the conflation of overhead voices and miming feels glaringly amateurish. At others, the Victorian nature of the text overwhelms the action and even the scariest of spooks with clanking chains and appropriately placed howling, doesn’t succeed in driving the work.

And then there’s the lights. It’s difficult to understand how and why a team headed by someone capable of creating as fine and focused a piece as The Mystery of Irma Vep would resort to the lumpen trick of blinding the audience with bright lights. As you sit there with your eyes closed or heavily shaded from the harsh halogen glare, you vaguely wonder what is being covered up here – because this is exactly what it feels like.

Having said all of that, Jason Ralph in the key role handles the miserly old Ebenezer with aplomb. He’s wily and rude, shrewd and quite hilarious. His volte face after the ghostly trio have seen to him, is believable. Supported by Naret Loots who mans the puppets and slips between a multitude of characters, the duo evoke an energy which is not, however, developed. Further to this, Loots has a tendency to smile very broadly on stage, particularly when she is the spirit of a puppet rather than a character itself. What happens is your eye is drawn to her smile and the puppet-generated illusion gets shattered.

As a result, what feels like a vanity project with a lot of exciting possibility trips up on its own sense of enthusiasm. Also a word of warning – something which many productions of Dickens fall into: this is not a children’s show – it’s more for children, admittedly, than Dickens’s Oliver Twist is, for instance – but the complexity of the language and nuance and curvaceousness of the tale will lose the focus of the sproglets rather quickly.

  • A Christmas Carol is written by Charles Dickens, adapted for stage and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features design by Naret Loots (animation), and Wessel Odendaal (music) and is performed by Christopher Dudgeon (voice-over), Naret Loots and Jason Ralph at The Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex in Fourways until January 7, 2018. Call 011 511 1818 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
  • The three versions of this Dickensian classic include this production, A Seussified Christmas Carol directed by Francois Theron, which is reviewed here, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, a British film directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.
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How a handful of penguins can change your day

popperspenguins

PENGUINS Ahoy: Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde) with two of his wild young birds. Photograph courtesy facebook.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if you discovered your house to be filled with curious exotic birds from Antartica, who want nothing more than snuggling in your freezer or eating more raw fish than you can afford? Mr Popper (Samuel Hyde), a bit of an irresponsible adult, if ever there was, gets to bring havoc into the domestic bliss of his Stillwater home as he gets to experience real heartsore in taking adult decisions. Mr Popper’s Penguins, a favourite of American children, which debuts in South Africa, blends a range of personal challenges with strong light and colour, an overload of cuteness and some really homely values.

On many levels, it’s an ideal end of year family show, bringing together all the issues of responsibility and wildness, dreams and possibility, exploration and history and the exploitation of Hollywood into one story. But scripted in the 1930s, as it is, it tends to exude a lot of social blandness which might make contemporary children feel a little impatient or confused. Do young parents address one another as “Momma” and “Poppa” respectively, still? Perhaps not. Replete with all the fabulous attention to detail of set designer Stan Knight, and costume designer Sarah Roberts, which keeps you enthralled and looking at all the different elements, the work on the whole lacks the kind of tight choreographic cohesion we have seen in this theatre in the past and this hurts its overall fabric and texture.

From a sound perspective, Sanli Jooste in her role of the mommy of the tale often fights vocally with the piped music: and the casualty? Her lyrics. You can’t hear what she’s singing. When the idea that she’s going to be performing on a piano is mentioned, you may smile with gladness, feeling relief that a real instrument will adorn the stage, but sadly the cleavage of her mimed piano performance and the music itself resonates illogically.

It is, however, the children in the role of the eponymous birds themselves that lend the work the charm and specialness that really makes this production worth seeing. While you may have expected more “penguinnish” choreography in the stereotypical understanding of how a human child becomes a penguin, these little ones have been well tutored and carefully directed in the different idiosyncrasies that wild birds forced into a domestic context would generally manifest. Sizwe Sibotshiwe’s heart melting moment when he acknowledges his sheer unadulterated loneliness is the unequivocal gem moment of the piece, but it is the squad of five penguins that capture the froth and nuance of the piece, and lend it fire.

  • Mr Popper’s Penguins, featuring lyrics by Jody Davidson and music by Brett Schirer is based on the novel by Richard Atwater and Florence Hasseltine Atwater, and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Clint Lesch (musical direction), Chantal Herman (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Bethany Joy Harding, Samuel Hyde, Thokozani Jiyane, Sanli Jooste, Naret Loots and Siphiwe Nkabinde, with a child cast comprising Clarise Bard, Dionysia Bizos, Danella Cassel, Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Simone Greehy, Joshua Hibbert, Maya Izaki, Summer Kerwin, Katarina Lee-Cook, Rachel Lee-Cook, Aaralyn Muttitt, Gabriel Poulsen, Tannah Proctor, Mathew Rusznyak, Sizwe Sibotshiwe, Kgahliso Solomon, Aisha Thokoane, Litha Tuku, Thando Tuku and Kayleigh van Wyk [the children who featured in the performance upon which this review is premised were Larona Christopher, Hannah Cohen, Summer Kerwin, Aaralyn Muttitt, Tannah Proctor and Sizwe Sibotshiwe]. It performs at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until December 23. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za