One for the werewolf in your wardrobe

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DON’T stint on the smiles, my dear: Jane, the maid (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Lady Edna, her new madam (Weslee Swain Lauder). Photograph courtesy Montecasino.

FEEL LIKE AN evening of manners and frippery, ghosts and howling wolves, complicated hairstyles and seriously big dresses? The Mystery of Irma Vep has something for everyone, and it’s a slick, quick and deliciously fine production that will keep you laughing for months.

The Pieter Toerien theatre has become known for staging crisp and fabulous farce, but this piece of theatre ramps things up considerably. Mashing together the notion of the Victorian penny dreadful with Charles Ludlam’s inimitable approach to the ridiculous, in an utterly over the top two-hander, which offers not a little sleight of hand magic in the wardrobe department, The Mystery of Irma Vep is utterly brilliant. The performances of Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth beg comparison with those of no less than Michael Caine and Sir Lawrence Olivier in the fabulous 1970s film, Sleuth.

It’s a mad little yarn involving many things that go bump in the night, as well as a maid of a Victorian manor who has a couple of unexplainable talents and a hairdo to match. She’s obliged to serve the manor’s new mistress, one Lady Edna, of whom she isn’t awfully fond. There’s a painting with a weird aura, a werewolf or two, an oddly sinister ragamuffin manservant with a wooden leg called Nicodemus as well as some anagrams to spice things up. And of course, as the genre demands, there’s a foray into Egyptian tombs, a couple of jagged chases around the auditorium, and a delicious peppering of sound effects. Not to forget an unforgettably terrible improvisation for dulcimer and recorder which is so bad that it is fabulous, and some wigs and costumes that have so much personality, they should be listed on the cast list. But that’s not all: Lady Edna’s facial expression in times of great horror blends faux high drama with the ludicrous so finely, it deserves programme credits of its own. In short, this production is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Think of Mary Shelley’s Dracula, with the earnestness contorted into utmost hilarity, and the characters drawn at the bizarre and pants-wettingly funny tilt of caricatures emphasised to the hilt, and you might get a sense of the fun that is to be had as you discover the unrolling mystery of Irma Vep. But be warned: you will be lost in your own laughter way before the plot grabs you by its own tale. It’s a convoluted one, but it doesn’t matter. The work is so crisply constructed, and utterly flawless, it just doesn’t miss a beat. Clocking in at about ten minutes too long, it’s a theatrical experience in which you may find your face begins to ache as a result of too much laughter, but the funny never stops.

  • The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful is written by Charles Ludlam and directed by Elizma Badenhorst. It features creative input by Wessel Odendaal (composer and sound design), Pierre du Plessis (wardrobe), Oliver Hauser (lighting) and Nadine and Louis Minnaar (Set), and is performed by Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until July 30 and at the Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town, August 3-19. Visit pietertoerien.co.za
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Raised arms against a sea of troubles

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Mad and bereft: Marcel Meyer plays an electric Hamlet. Photograph by Pat Bromilow Downing.

There’s nothing quite like a foray into the life and dilemmas of the Prince of Denmark to make an otherwise ordinary evening completely extraordinary. Under the directorial hand of Fred Abrahamse, Hamlet is an uncompromising, uncompromised production which is contemporary and classic at the same time, as it presents one of theatre’s most respected stories with a moral freshness and a pared down sensibility that will keep you riveted.

The tale of the hapless young prince who is visited by the ghost of his recently deceased father, with a message of vengeance for his murder has been performed for over 400 years, in various manifestations and the creative team of this production have certainly done their homework in reflecting on it. In particular, in 1608, a record exists documenting the performance of this work by the crew of the Red Dragon, a ship, off the East Coast of South Africa.

Abrahamse casts a nod in the direction of this crew with his stage that is surrounded by a flood of tears and a set that is ensconced in a diaphanous arras. The effect is a cleaving of values and a conflation of narrative with set decisions that will take your breath away. And as you hear the creak of the ship resting and swaying on the ocean, you will realise the devastating subtlety with which every part of this production – from the music’s composition to the fight choreography – comes together to enable a sophisticated and potent whole.

Hamlet is performed by a tiny but immensely sophisticated cast of men. Everyone, including Gertrude and Ophelia, is represented with due dignity and muscle – and if you saw Abrahamse’s Richard III a couple of years ago, you will understand the nuance and wisdom in the work. Playing Shakespeare in such a way that you, in the audience can imbibe the beauty of the language as you’re transported by the moral crux of the tale, the work is a sheer masterpiece.

It’s sinister and shaped, moulded and passionate in its articulation, but the proverbial cherry on top of this tough well-made piece is the costume design. Easy enough to transfer performers and characters before our very eyes, the clothing they wear is clean of fluff, but not of wit and wisdom.

The eponymous character, performed by Marcel Meyer, is gut-wrenching in his quandary as he faces his corrupt uncle (Michael Richard) and his complicit mother (Callum Tilbury), in her fabulous crown of spikes. In directing the work, Abrahamse has given an edgy focus to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Jeremy Richard and Matthew Baldwin), enabling them to embrace the sinister – evoking the terrifying young girls in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – in their togetherness and split loyalties. He also highlights the bumbling pedantic role of Polonius (Dean Balie), offering an explicit clarity to the work which will make you want to hold onto moments forever.

There are moments in this work which renders the flowers of remembrance cast so beautifully by Ophelia into flames and tea lights. And others in which Yorrick’s skull dangles magically over a shroud, but further to that, there are moments in which the bare simplicity of the words cast against the set, of the predicament of the characters cast against their morals, that reaches through the rich and varied trajectory of this play’s history and makes you realise how privileged you are to be in the audience.

  • Hamlet is written by William Shakespeare and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It features design by Fred Abrahamse (set and lighting), Marcel Meyer (costumes), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (composer) and Anton Moon (fight choreography) and is performed by Matthew Baldwin, Dean Balie, Marcel Meyer, Jeremy Richard, Michael Richard and Callum Tilbury at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until May 21. Call 011 511 1988 or visit http://www.pietertoerien.co.za.

Let’s hear it for the boys

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CLOSE every door to me: Wonderfully refined Earl Gregory plays Joseph. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za

IF THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph extravaganza is what gets your mojo pumping, look no further. This show is replete with utterly fabulous male performers, a song repertoire that’s mesmerising and upbeat and a hodge-podge of music references that may turn your head, if the booming deep bass and strobe lights don’t. It does, however, not do justice to the women onstage.

This Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is a boys’ show. Featuring imminently satisfying choreography and a beautiful cast of young men, in tune with the biblical saga of Jacob and his dozen sons, the work is non-stop all the way. And with Earl Gregory once again apprising the eponymous role, it flies. Gregory’s refined performance sets up a rich counterplay between the rambunctiousness of the rest of the brothers, lending you guttural insight into the basic lines of the story: He’s the favourite, he gets the coat, they’re jealous and get rid of him, but he manages to find his way to the top again.

And that is one of the downsides of this work: the narrative is chopped into its basics and loses nuance. And this happens because of technical challenges. For one thing, this show’s sound is very big. In fact, it’s bigger than the venue. The casualty, in such a situation is the clarity of the lyrics. If you come to see Joseph because you want a bit of a biblical tale with lovely tunes in your life, you might feel disappointed.  The Joseph story, arguably as sexy as the Jesus Christ saga in a musical interpretation on this scale, gets lost. Instead you will see something hard edged and blingy, with ramped up melodrama rather than sentimentality.

This is because there’s not only a huge mix of cultural references in the original version bringing everything from an Elvis-like Pharoah (Jonathan Roxmouth) to South American tango and French ballads into the mix, but also because director Paul Warwick Griffin mashes this up further with  South African references and lyrics which are rejigged in parts. The result is a party. A happy, flashy party, but still, a party, rather than a bible tale.

While the reference to the Guptas remains culturally dodgy – they are, after all, Indian and not Midianite – and many of the musical digressions get a little carried away with themselves, you need to roll with the flow of this otherwise tightly woven piece.

The greatest downfall, however, is the women. Dressed in seriously unflattering costumes, and crudely choreographed, they feel compromised. Rather than seductive, Potiphar’s wife (Thalia Burt) is pushed into grotesque intercourse-evocative manoeuvres with her male slaves, in a kind of Rocky Horror Show meets ancient Egyptian shlock scene, which leave little to the imagination. Also the “adoring girls” – what they’re named in the programme – are little more than fluff on the scene.

In the performance on which this review is premised, Raquel Munn played the narrator; she tried  hard to embrace this production with a big smile and a projected persona, but simply doesn’t have the sense of authority onstage to be convincing.

And yes, while strobes and booming basses are the order of the day, it isn’t direct sensory assault for the full duration of the show and elements like Joseph’s time incarcerated are handled with a quiet starkness that challenges the noisiness of the rest of the piece and stands out rather exquisitely.

In all, it’s a happy lovely party of a story with overriding themes of brotherly jealousy, the horror of the loss of a son, lots of gyrating hips and flashy costumes, and an ultimate celebration of the victim as hero. If you can overlook its flaws, don’t mind the surprise strobes and want to see some fine young men jiggling their stuff with pizzazz and confidence, this one’s for you.

  • Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, with original lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is directed by Paul Warwick Griffin. It is designed by Duane Alexander (choreographer), Niall Griffin (costumes), Gareth Hewitt Williams (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Louis Zurnamer (musical direction), and performed by Thalia Burt, Emile Doubell, Louise Duhain, Richard Gau, Calvyn Grandling, Darren Greeff, Earl Gregory, Èmil Haarhoff, Kyle Jardine, Kent Jeycocke, Venolia Manale, Michael McMeeking, Kenneth Meyer, Raquel Munn, Nádine, Jarryd Nurden, Dean Roberts, Jonathan Roxmouth, Sonwabiso Sakuba, Stephan van der Walt and Evan van Soest, with music by Louis Zurnamer (piano), James Lombard (Drums), Ryno Zeelie (additional guitar) and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (other instruments), at The Pieter Toerien Theatre in Montecasino, Fourways until January 29 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, February 16 to April 8. Visit www.pietertoerien.co.za

Where giggles and song should part ways

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MAGIC fingers: Ian von Memerty. Photograph courtesy Pieter Toerien Theatre.

A MEDLEY OF songs is a curious thing. It’s a bit like a Reader’s Digest compilation: enough to get your heart racing with nostalgia, but not enough to include every word. It’s a tight juxtaposition of hits that doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, and yet the cohesive whole is delicious. This is the strength of Ian von Memerty’s Keyboard Killers, a celebration of eight men who wielded the piano with their fingers and their voice in a way that shaped the world, effectively.

From the simple melodies of Irving Berlin to the complex navigations through Beethoven and Handl that features in the beautiful complicated diversity of Billie Joel’s work, von Memerty is at the helm of his Yamaha piano, with a rich sense of self, a double bass on his right and a set of bongo drums on his left. Who could ask for anything more?

The show, structured like many of its ilk, is simply about entertainment, and conjoined with the incredibly fine work by pianists including Freddie Mercury, Noël Coward, Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, Fats Waller and John Legend, it contains a rash of obligatory funny bits. The truth is, these funnies hurt the intensity of the programme and the potential brilliance of von Memerty on keyboard. Spewing self-deprecating jokes at various interregna in the show, von Memerty doesn’t do complete justice to his own skill, which soars and reaches out when he plays the work of Billie Joel and Freddie Mercury, but loses a sense of momentum in the bum wiggling exercises, the tired political jibes and the impromptu clowning.

Keyboard Killers is a pleasant enough show, but one not convincingly directed to celebrate von Memerty’s true fire – the kind of work that earned him his veteran keyboard king status.

  • Keyboard Killers is compiled and performed by Ian von Memerty with Bronwyn Clacherty on percussion and Andrew Warneke on bass. It performs in the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, until October 30. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Fat and sassy

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INSULT me all you like, I still love you: Vicky (Michelle Botha) and Henry (Tobie Cronje). Photograph by Kosie Smit.

THE ‘F’ WORD’S become constrained by frowns and taboos in the last little while, particularly under the rubric of “sugar-free September”, a dietary challenge for the month. In this fast-paced world, where slang is coined overnight and things become offensive with increasing rapidity, you could fall into a trap of being deemed a body-shamer by saying things that three weeks ago were quite innocent. Enter Charles Laurence’s My Fat Friend, a hilarious bit of theatre which tears apart these levels of taboo and political correctness with abandon, but offers a twist in the plot and an astute mirror to society.

The play wouldn’t quite be the same, however, without the delicious magic that veteran performer Tobie Cronjé brings to the mix. With a physique not that different from a beanpole and an ability to have you rolling on the floor, with just a flick of his eyebrow or a folding of a leg, even before he’s opened his mouth, he is an absolute delight and lends frissons of Gary Reich’s British TV series Vicious to the work.

Henry (Tobie Cronjé), James Anderson (Jeremy Richard) and Vicky (Michelle Botha) live in a Hampstead house, which Vicky owns. She also runs a second hand bookstore which is adjoined to the property. While James is flagrantly Scottish and desperately young, Henry is outrageously gay and on the outer border of middle aged. He wears a natty little toupee, which goes awry at times, and is assigned the best and bitchiest lines. And Vicky is, you guessed it: the fat friend, who deals with her unmarried status by eating. A lot.

With headspinning costume changes that will leave you questioning the veracity of your own vision, it’s a tale of loving insults and a hungry need for love as a respite from boredom and loneliness. Almost farcical in its construction, it’s a smoothly constructed piece, elegantly filtering in some of the nastiest retorts you can imagine, and while it’s a piece with a bristly shell, it has a real heart inside it with a potent moral in its tale.

Featuring Charlie Bouguenon as Tom, the love interest, it’s a work that cocks a fond snook at the culture of weight loss as it grins naughtily at the notion of what makes a woman’s body beautiful. Completely unpredictable and satisfyingly engaging, this is more of a delight than any guilty guzzling of sugar can possibly be.

  • My Fat Friend is written by Charles Laurence and directed by André Odendaal. It is performed by Michelle Botha, Charlie Bouguenon, Tobie Cronjé and Jeremy Richard, at the Pieter Toerien  Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until October 2 and at the Pieter Toerien Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, November 9-26. Call 011 511 1988 or 082 715 0123 (Kosie Smit) or visit www.montecasinotheatre.co.za

Seduction in the Vertical Hour

Michael Richard and Jackie Rens as Oliver Lucas and Nadia Blye, in the Vertical Hour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

Michael Richard and Jackie Rens as Oliver Lucas and Nadia Blye, in the Vertical Hour. Photograph courtesy Montecasino Theatre.

Life changing seduction can happen without either party laying a finger on the other. This is the underlying erotic edge, in The Vertical Hour, a David Hare play about choices.

Phillip Lucas (Richard Gau), a young physiotherapist based in America is taking his girlfriend, Nadia Blye (Jackie Rens) to meet his estranged father, Oliver Lucas (Michael Richard), a once sought after nephrologist, in Wales. It is in the immediate wake of America’s war on Iraq. Nadia is a foreign correspondent in warzones turned professor of political studies at Yale University. She’s a hard-edged young woman with a profound sense of definiteness about her.

The visit serves to unhinge several ghosts in the lives of the Lucas father and son and while the Vertical Hour refers to a moment in combat, after a disaster, after a shooting, when you can actually be of some use, it is exploited in a number of different combative directions, from the lecture theatre to the father and son dyad, the piece is fraught with dynamic tension.

Unfortunately, Gau’s lack of gravitas and too tender years cause the piece to buckle. He’s just not convincing as the kind of man that would be capable of seducing someone like Rens’ character.  She, in turn embraces Nadia Blye with a real sense of authority, perhaps too much: the hard-as-nails persona is mind-numbing and all embracing and the character loses dimension and lacks heart. The work is held together by Richard’s demure and almost sinister maturity as the ageing doctor who lives alone in a gorgeous place.

He reads through the young politics professor as though she were a comic, gutting her emotionally but with devastating quietness, within minutes of meeting her. It’s a seduction like you might never have seen before: the air becomes electric and the woman is overwhelmed with words alone. But it is not sexual. It is about power.

It’s an essay on parenting as it is one on education. Two very powerful devices of the lecturer in combat with her students bracket the play and feature newcomers Jaco van Rensburg and Sinakho Zokuta as Dennis and Terry respectively: two students who go head to head with their professor, willing to bring their personal baggage into the mix.

The Vertical Hour, with its set comprising paintings of imploding British and American flags, is a little hurt by casting decisions, but its strength of plot and Richard’s haunting presence holds it together and keeps your focus.

  • The Vertical Hour is written by David Hare and directed by Fred Abrahamse. It features Richard Gau; Jackie Rens; Michael Richard; Jaco van Rensburg; and Sinakho Zokuta and performs at The Studio, Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 9.