How a handful of penguins can change your day

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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
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Full-throated and in fine demonic form, Sweeney Todd is a must-see

My friend: Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth) adores his blade; Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) looks on. Photograph by Val Adamson

My friend: Sweeney Todd (Jonathan Roxmouth) adores his blade; Mrs Lovett (Charon Williams-Ros) looks on. Photograph by Val Adamson

Drenched in blood and delicious in its unrelenting dark humour, Steven Stead’s production of Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim classic that blends some of the finest traditions in vocal music, is a real achievement.

Headlined by Jonathan Roxmouth in the lead, and Charon Williams-Ros as the dreadfully fine Mrs Lovett, the production is non-stop entertainment at its very grimmest. Blending everything from a renegade barber with a sharp blade he’s not afraid to use, to rape and havoc, lunatics set free from an asylum, the grinding of human flesh to make pies for the unsuspecting community and a vortex of revenge made all the more slippery with spilled blood. But don’t be frightened or get moralistic: it’s a delicious no holds barred spoof on the horror tradition. And virtually everyone dies at the end.

But also, literally everyone shines in their roles, from the cameo performances of the ensemble cast, lending texture and energy to the depiction of the grubby grunginess of 19th century London, which is enhanced to miraculous levels by an extraordinary set, which evolves in deft timing into its various levels, leeways and channels. Like any penny dreadful of the time, there’s tales within tales, a lovely damsel in distress – Sanli Jooste – mistaken identities and lots of flagrant murder of bad guys and foolish ones, hairy men and anyone else.

Michael Richard as the totally amoral Judge Turpin who rules the community with a crooked set of values and his sidekick the Beadle (Adam Pelkowitz) form a gruesome duo and a fine nemesis for Mr Todd a.k.a. Benjamin Barker, a man nursing a grievance and holding a sharp blade for many a beard and oft a little more, a little lower.

Polished performances, fine choreography and ghoulish make up and costumes aside, the complexity of the music, the wit and coherence of the lyrics, which threads so many different reflections and opinions into the rich and glorious texture of the material draws you in and keeps you focused. The language is nimble and contemporary, vicious and hilarious.

The only drawback remains the space in relation to the bigness of the sound. Often when a solo performer is jousting vocally with the orchestra, his or her voice is lost. This is compensated for by the beautiful strengths of the ensemble cast, which lend the work the kind of wild hysteria and rich depth, it warrants.

Sweeney Todd will sweep you off your feet and make any meat pie that comes your way a little tainted with the possibility of sheer horror.

  • Sweeney Todd, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is based on the book by Hugh Wheeler and directed by Steven Stead. It features design by Greg King (set), Neil Stuart Harris (costumes), Rowan Bakker (musical direction), Tina Le Roux (lighting), Mark Malherbe (sound) and Jonathan Tunick (orchestration). It is performed by Cameron Botha, Anne-Marie Clulow, Pauline du Plessis, Germandt Geldenhuys, Earl Gregory, Sanli Jooste, Weslee Swain Lauder, Adam Pelkowitz, Michael Richard, Megan Rigby, Jonathan Roxmouth, Claire Simonis, Candice Van Litsenborgh, Jaco Van Rensburg, Charon Williams-Ros and Luciano Zuppa, at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino, Fourways, until November 29. <<Due to popular demand, the run of the season in Johannesburg has been extended until December 13>> Visit montecasino.co.za