He ain’t boring: he’s my sloth

Sparky

ALL in the family: Mommy (Genevieve Oliver), Libby (Boitumelo Phaho), and Sparky the pet sloth (Sandi Dlangalala). Photograph courtesy http://www.artslink.co.za

WHAT DO YOU DO do if your mommy’s a work-from-home tax consultant who simply will not bend in the urgent and earnest quest to enhance the household with a pet? You can sing and you can dance. You can become furious and stamp your foot. You can cajole, pleadingly. And then, you can play by her rules and get the utterly unexpected. Sparky takes all of these values in a bunch, blends them with the most charming of laid back sloths (Sandi Dlangalala) and presents a perfect opportunity for young performers to shine with beautiful abandon.

It’s a very simple gentle story, with the cutes ramped up all the way, and the values clearly exposed. Sparky – not to be confused with the 1947 story Sparky’s Magic Piano – is an American yarn about accepting one’s own limitations, and working creatively within the parameters of authority. It’s about a little girl called Libby (Boitumelo Phaho) and her know-it-all friend Mary (Christina Moschides) and a quest to make sense of the world between hugs of a very cuddly and extremely lazy sloth.

Riffing and raffing it up in the wake of what young children might think animals should be trained to do as tricks, ultimately, it’s a crisply told story about the value and complexity of being a mum with commitments, of falling in love with an animal, and of learning how things work and how things are spelled. It’s a story of disappointment and delight and while it is a bit dated in the lyrics department – does anyone still know who Tony Danza is? – it’s tight, focused and together.

Both Phaho and Moschides, young performers though they may be, exude a confidence, an understanding of characterisation and a sense of rhythm that far surpasses their age limits. Offset against the comforting performances of Genevieve Olivier as the mommy and Gareth Meijsen as the school teacher, the work exactly hits the mark for the three-to-six year olds for whom it is designed.

It does remain curious, however, as to why young parents still insist on bringing their under-three-year-olds to the theatre; this play is created for little ones, but not utter babies, and the toddling presence of someone who is still in nappies and cannot yet engage with the experience is not only cruel to the littly in question, but idiotically selfish to the whole audience. It’s clear you think your baby’s brilliant – he’s yours after all. But trust the theatre professionals on this, and bring him next year, or the year after.

  • Sparky is written by Jenny Offill and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Jodie Davimes (choreography) and Stan Knight (set) and is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Gareth Meijsen and Genevieve Olivier with three child casts: Group 1: Elektra de Melo and Tannah Proctor; Group 2: Christina Moschides and Boitumelo Phaho; and Group 3: Erica Harris and Neo Thokoane, co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha, at the Wynnstay theatre, National Children’s Theatre complex in Parktown, until December 23. [This review is premised on a performance which featured the children in Group 2]. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
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Scrooge! Glorious Scrooge!

Seussified

WHAT a little turkey for Christmas! So says Mrs Cratchit (Nieke Lombard) and her husband, Bob (Alessandro Mendes), feeling the pinch, courtesy of Scrooge. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT DO YOU do with a fine and classical tale of Christmas told in Dickensian language, if you want to add a bit of sprite to its shenanigans and a bit of verve to your audience engagement? That’s easy. You Seussify it. So says American theatre-maker Peter Bloedel with his pen as much as his passion for things that make the name Dr Seuss shimmer with recognition, eclecticism and general cartwheeling madness. This fine and beautifully directed work offers the whole package –  with a sniff of classical Seussical self-deprecation, in rhyming couplets, electric green hair and hilarity; and a glut of Dickensian shlock.

It’s all rolled together by a delicious team of performers and designers, under the directorial eye of Francois Theron with Daniel Geddes adding a twinkle of choral energy while he also performs the main character. In short, A Seussified Christmas Carol is everything you would expect from Dr Seuss, and from Dickens, only more, because you get both for one ticket.

The charm, delight and flippancy departments in this work go full out in giving linguistic faux earnestness to the idea of Seussical grammar, and they don’t stoop in showcasing the talent of Blaine Shore. A newcomer to this theatre, his stage presence — be it in the role of Old Fesswig, the dead Jake Marley or other characters — is bold and clear and lends an energised, camp, fleshed out and nuanced insight into the insanity of what Seuss means to his fans.

Ebenezer Scrooge is the kind of bloke that offers insight into why Christmas is a time of goodwill to all beings, kindness and joy to the world. And that’s simply because he’s the utter corollary. With his fingerless gloves, his elaborate dressing gown and his penchant for real miserliness he embodies the notion of meanness down to the tips of his slippers. And who’s he mean to? Bob Cratchit (Alessandro Mendes), for one – his loyal employee. Bob’s a man who has the short end of the stick, but sees it all as a half full glass. Is he simple? No. He’s kind. And he’s poor.

Stepping aside from the notions of Victorian poverty as reflected in Dickens’s 1843 Christmas chestnut, Bloedel injects the kind of rhyming charm which would enthral Dr Seuss himself, and you get delicious, bold and well-formed performances from everyone, including the child performers on board, collectively ramped up with the presences of electric green hair, Seussical red and white stripes and wild, almost callous hilarity. While some of the articulation is not as clear as it could be, the gist of the work is upheld with the kind of Seussical tempo that first put the National Children’s Theatre on most people’s must do lists close to 10 years ago.

With inventive and hilarious language that pokes fun at many things, both historical and contemporary, it’s a tale of an emotionally short-sighted man, four ghosts and the value of holding a mirror up to one’s heart. It might make your heart brim over a little, but it’s all in a good cause.

  • A Seussified Christmas Carol is written by Peter Bloedel and directed by Francois Theron. It features design by Daniel Keith Geddes (choral arrangement and vocal direction), Sarah Roberts (set and costumes), Stan Knight (set construction), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Cassius Davids, Jessica Foli, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard, Nomonde Thande Matiwane, Alessandro Mendes and Blaine Shore, in collaboration with three alternate children’s casts co-ordinated by Liz-Mari Botha: Group 1: Joshua Hibbert, Onkagile Kgaladi and Vuyile Zako; Group 2: Brayden Steenhoff, Kaih Mokaka and Shayna Burg; and Group 3: Asher Steenhoff Paidamoyo Mutharika and Aaralyn Muttitt; and understudy Erin Atkins. [This review is premised on the performance featuring Group 2] until December 23 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484-1584 or visit http://www.nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za
  • There are currently three productions on the boards right now, which deal with Charles Dickens’s great classic: this play, A Christmas Carol directed by Elizma Badenhorst, which is reviewed here, and the film The Man Who Invented Christmas, directed by Bharat Nalluri, which is reviewed here.

School ties, serge skirts and unmitigated magic in the cupboard

lionwitchwardrobe

NOTHING to do on a rainy day: Pevensie siblings Peter (Sandi Dlangalala), Lucy (Nomonde Matiwane), Susan (Nieke Lombard) and Edmund (Daniel Keith Geddes). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHEN REAL MAGIC prevails in a situation, the mystery can be so great that all ideas of play-acting illusion and scepticism are cast aside spontaneously, mesmerising young and old unashamedly in the sense of ‘what if’ that it conjures. This is exactly what happens in the stage version of C S Lewis’s beautiful classic novel, which has been changing children’s lives since the 1950s. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the quintessential fantasy that takes a bored and rather lonely eight year old through a cupboard in a strange house and into another world, filled with romance and mythology, conquest and the clash of good and evil.

It’s an immensely complicated tale, which some critics have reflected upon as a parable or an allegory. Involving the emotional detritus of the Second World War, the rubrics of heraldry and the story of the resurrection of a great and powerful leader, it’s the kind of work that you might think a children’s theatre director would shy from: replete with so much nuance and detail, it’s a terrifying prospect to stage in a comprehensive manner, and a tight time frame, particularly for little ones.

Director Francois Theron is clearly up for this task in this completely new and stripped down approach to the work. Armed with a couple of bedsheets, a few branches painted white, some baskets with lids and a whole bunch of ingenuity, not to forget a lion which is completely noble in its presence, this fabulously directed cast of four create the whole narrative through children’s eyes. While the specifics of this tale might not be completely accessible to the very young in the audience, replete as it is with the unapologetically complicated language of the original, the magic most certainly will, and as a very fine and boisterous Lucy Pevensie (Nomonde Matiwane) takes us by the hand (alongside her older siblings) into the core of utter magic, which introduces classical mythological beasties such as the Faun, Mr Tumnus (Daniel Keith Geddes), suddenly you are transformed into the nine-year-old that you once were when you were bewitched by this novel decades ago.

It’s not only sterling performances, and utterly wise casting which sees the oldest boy, Peter (Sandi Dlangalala) as the responsible 14-year-old and Susan, the big sister (Nieke Lombard) as one imbued with her own sense of importance in the pecking order, not to forget the less-focused Edmund (Geddes) who becomes susceptible to the allure of the White Witch (Lombard) and her beguiling Turkish Delights; there’s also magic in the set itself. Using echoed circles of magic, ones in twigs and others cast by light, the space is set alight with an impervious sense of possibility that plays with abstraction and make believe as it flirts with true magic. The kind that rests in the hearts of any undeveloped artist, waiting to unfold.

It’s a dream-come-true production which doesn’t lose itself in the details of the original book. Rather, it boldly takes possession of the nub of the tale, keeps the cast in their classic 1950s English school uniforms, and with the device of a shadow casting the texture of lead-lighting in casement windows of English period architecture, the tone is set for the magic to begin. This work is about the craft of the discipline, the necessary suspension of belief as well as all the bits and pieces of magnificence that keep it glowing.

  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on the eponymous 1950 novel by C S Lewis, dramatised by Le Clanche du Rand and directed by Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Mathew Lewis (lighting), and it is performed by Sandi Dlangalala, Daniel Keith Geddes, Nieke Lombard and Nomonde Matiwane, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, Johannesburg, until September 3 and then, from September 25 until October 15. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Make-believe and tiger shenanigans

Tiger

OH, mummy, he’s hungry! The Tiger (Jonathan Raath), relishes the remains of dinner, delighting and shocking Sophie (Pascalle Durand) and mummy (Louise Duhain). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

WHAT WOULD YOU do if a great big orange, stripy tiger was an unexpected guest at your mummy’s tea table? Like the other tots in the audience, you would undoubtedly be blown away with an excess of cuteness, fluffiness and delight, and forget about the practicalities of feeding a very hungry beast, even if he has mostly dashing manners. The National Children’s Theatre is rapidly honing yet another feather in its proverbial cap, by developing work that caters to the 2-5 age group, and they’re doing it with utterly professional aplomb.

The stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, directed by the inimitable Francois Theron is spot on in terms of the collaborative energies of the piece. Eight-year-old Pascalle Durand as Sophie, the child for whom this orange-striped extravaganza happens, shimmies like a real professional. She carries her role with directness and dignity and her singing voice is like a little bell, loud and clear enough to inspire joy into the hearts of the oldest and most craggy of curmudgeons, let alone the babies in the audience. Above all, she collaborates with the grown ups on the cast as a real team member. This is a child to watch.

The story is gentle and direct, espousing a 1960s normalcy that is about daddy (Kefilwe Mohlabane) going to work in a suit and tie, mummy (Louise Duhain) doing mummy things such as shopping and cooking, and Sophie enjoying the variety of delights that comprise her life, from receiving a kitty in the post to joking with the milkman (Jonathan Raath), and watching the tick-tock of the clock as the day passes.

The Tiger (Raath) in his head-to-toe costume interrupts things, but he’s a very welcome routine-quasher. This brightly coloured work with brilliant black and white props that do not pretend to be the ‘real’ thing, represent a perfect introduction for your littly to the make-believe magic that theatre offers. Clocking in at 45 minutes, and featuring some dance-along activities and some “He’s behind you!” intrigues, it’s a work that is just right for the little tiger in your life. The question must be posed, however, as to whether, like this theatre’s recent production of the Library Lion, audience members can anticipate an isiZulu or perhaps an isiXhosa tiger at their tea table, in the near future?

  • The Tiger Who Came To Tea is adapted for stage by David Wood, based on the eponymous book by Judith Kerr. It is directed by Francois Theron and features creative input by Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jodie Davimes (choreography). It is performed by Louise Duhain, Kefilwe Mohlabane and Jonathan Raath and an alternating child cast of Zoe Buitendag, Pascalle Durand and Luca Teague. This review is premised on the performance featuring Pascalle Durand. It performs at Wynnstay, on the National Children’s Theatre campus in Parktown, until August 20. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.