Are we home, yet?

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WHAT happens now? Grace (Lynelle Kenned) en route to a foreign country to escape a war in Africa. Photograph by Oscar O’Ryan

<<Warning: This production contains strobe lights and lights focused directly on the audience>>

THE TRICK OF writing good material for a stage production is not about packing a story full of so much detail that it develops narrative indigestion, and then focusing interrogation-strong lights on your audience from time to time. It’s about the age-old principle of less is more.

The much-anticipated brand new musical Calling Me Home is, as it is billed, a story of hope, a story of love and a story of home. But it’s also a story of drugs and shallow stereotypes, a story of war and Africa, a story of jail and betrayal, a story of class awareness and poverty, a story of prostitutes and the mafia, a story of woman abuse and exile, and the list goes on. In short, it tries very earnestly to do far too many things concurrently and sadly spins way out of its depth very quickly.

To add insult to injury, it’s a very long show, clocking in at close to three hours, including the interval. It’s this long because the story is pedantic and begs for the decisions of a strong editor. The songs are also annoyingly repetitive. Featuring strong voices which have earned their stripes in the local theatre industry, including Lynelle Kenned, Samantha Peo and Anthony Downing, the work doesn’t respect the individual personae of the performers, and its thunderball of a story which is bombastic as it is clichéd, featuring bland choreography – particularly for the women, and lyrics which utterly lack poetry, become something of an ordeal for the audience to sit through.

It’s a story of sibling love in a time of war, jimmied into other realities in a diversity of directions which make you think there was an angry committee at the helm of this writing project.

Indeed, in the opening scenes, Zolani Mahola presents a strong Lindiwe, who meets Grace (Lynelle Kenned) on the train and the two become friends. Lindiwe is a woman with a terrible tale to tell: she’s a runaway from an abusive husband. As the story unfolds and rolls in a whole range of concurrent directions, Lindiwe turns into a cameo, a casualty of the work.

This is not an isolated instance of thwarted opportunity. Samantha Peo plays Isabella, a tragic figure who is the sister of Rafael (Anthony Downing), Grace’s romantic interest. She sings in a night club, snorts her way through unhappiness and is subject to the whims of Russian druglords, Vladimir (Pierre van Heerden) and Ivan (Christiaan Snyman). Isabella’s tale headlines the second half of the production, and it’s a squalid tale told with great dollops of schmaltz, so earnest in their application that the potential subtlety of Peo’s character is battered by the prosaic nature of the work.

All things considered, with due respect to the professionals involved in creating this work and giving the project life, you cannot help but ask yourself: we live currently in such a violent society; do we really need to spend money to see more war and strobe lights on our stages, in the garb of tricksy techology? Do we really need to be exposed to gun-toting performers casting a fantasy war around us, as we sit in a theatre?

Calling Me Home features innovative set design with animation that will hold your interest – conveying a sense of space and atmosphere which is clear and compelling. But some basic premises in the work hurt what might have been good intentions, and as you peer through these sets at the world the production hopes to magic into life, you come away with some very damaging stereotypes about cultures – Africans are defined by war, poverty and cultural naivete, while Americans are tainted by the overweening presence of Russian crime bosses, construction workers and prostitutes. It’s enough to make you want to flee all the way home, without even being called to do so.

  • Calling Me Home is written and composed by Alice Gillham and directed by Magdalene Minnaar, assisted by Grant van Ster. It features creative input by Nadine Minnaar (set), Joshua Cutts (lighting), Louis Minnaar and Werner Burger (animation), Shaun Oelf (choreography), Alice Gillham and Stefan Lombard (musical direction), Mark Malherbe (sound), Matthew James (soundscape) and Juanita Kôtze and Sue Daniels (wardrobe). It is performed by Luigia Casaleggio, Anthony Downing, Richard Gau, Carly Graeme, Isabella Jane, Lynelle Kenned, Saxola Ketshengane, Vasti Knoesen, Clint Lesch, Tannah Levick, Thiart Li, Zolani Mahola, Kgomotso Makwela, Tankiso Mamabolo, Michael McMeeking, Manda Ndimande, Given Nkosi, Yollandi Nortjie, Samantha Peo, Laura-Lee Pitout, Musanete Sakupwanya, Dihan Schoeman, Conroy Scott, Len-Barry Simons, Christiaan Snyman, Annemarie Steenkamp, Shaun Thomas, Anja van den Berg, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Pierre van Heerden, Sebastian Zokoza and Zion Zuke, as well as a live orchestra featuring Cameron Andrews (clarinet), Olga Korvink (violin), Maureen Marler (‘cello), Anna-Maria Muller (flute) and Marga Sander (piano), in the Mandela Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until September 3. Visit joburgtheatre.com or call 0861 670 670.

Hold my hand and we’re half way there: West Side Story’s unequivocal victory

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LOVE in the face of turf wars. Tony (Jonathan Roxmouth) and Maria (Lynnelle Kenned). Photograph by Jesse Kramer.

IT TAKES SPECIAL skill to tease open one of theatre and literature’s greatest works and to reinvent it. It  takes even more special skill and creative bravery to be able to produce a work on stage that has been produced on myriads of other stages all over the world and in various mediums, and to make it fresh. Producers Eric Abraham and Daniel Galloway, for the Fugard Theatre, are to be congratulated on the unequivocal victory they have achieved with West Side Story.

Premised on the unadulterated beauty of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this tale of poverty and crime, love and hate in a post-Second World War, post Depression context on the West Side of New York, touches all the keystones that are triggers to the kind of clichés that give clichés their schmaltzy reputation, but with a set which is at once dazzling and subtle, some extraordinary stand-out performances and a deeply honed and polished reflection of violence and social context, to say nothing of sheer brilliance in design, it’s up there among the best theatre experiences in this city, of the decade.

It begins, however, with some unnecessary and uneasy gimmickry in the resonance between lighting and music and the spirit of the work doesn’t grab you by the throat from the work’s first bars of music, or first steps of dance, as you may anticipate.  The scene is cast with bland clarity, as the two gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, strut their stuff and tease their respective foes into internecine violence. The women in the bridal factory tend to be shrieky. But as the work unfolds, the incredible crescendo it achieves in balancing narrative with design, showcasing Jonathan Roxmouth opposite Lynnelle Kenned with their devastatingly fine voices in the leads, sweeps you away, heart first and not only do you forgive the opening blandness, but you forget it, too.

Making incredibly sophisticated use of the horizontal in the massive concrete-evocative set, an understanding of space and time but also depth of focus is compelling, and with this geometry, something completely extraordinary happens. The tale is a predictable one and you know how it ends, and the songs, from Maria and Tonight, to I Feel Pretty and Somewhere are so well known, they punctuate the piece with familiarity.

But what this director and his enormous cast have achieved here is an offering of a tale which will trigger your tears in spite of everything: the fierce love between Maria and Tony, which flies in the face of their respective gangs’ ideologies is handled with a sincerity and a flamboyance that is not just about the spectacle or the drama. It’s rich with life and fraught with texture. It’s not only about gritty New York values, and a self-conscious use of 1950s slang and dance sequences. It’s something that is lifted to the level of the timeless universal.

Kenned is relatively new on Johannesburg’s stages and slight of build, but supremely skilled vocally, she embraces the whole stage and the whole audience with her presence. Even whilst she is climbing scaffolding or in the scene but off central focus, your eyes rest on her. There’s a demureness and an innocence that evokes Olivia Hussey’s 1968 portrayal of Juliet in Franco Zefirelli’s version of the Shakespeare classic, and a brassiness which gives her soul. But when calamity strikes and death happens, that torsion between her and her lover and her brother is palpable. It’s a moment you won’t readily forget.

If you see one musical this year in Johannesburg: this is it.

  • West Side Story is based on an idea by Jerome Robbins and a book by Arthur Laurents and directed by Matthew Wild. It is designed by Leonard Bernstein (composition), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Jerome Robbins, Louisa Talbot and Richard Lothian (choreography), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sandar (musical direction), Conor Murphy, Johan Engels, Carl Gersbach, Nadine Minnaar and Gerhard Morkel (set), Birrie Le Roux (costumes), Joshua Cutts (lighting) and Mark Malherbe (sound). It is performed by Grant Almirall, Matthew Berry, Cameron Botha, Daniel Buys, Caitlin Clerk, Elzanne Crause, Keaton Ditchfield, Adrian Galley, Nurit Graff, Reg Hart, Natasha Hess, Christopher Jaftha, Stephen Jubber, Lynelle Kenned, Bianca Le Grange, Richard Lothian, Carlo McFarlane, Ipeleng Merafe, Sven-Eric Müller, Kirsten Murphy Rossiter, Brendan Murray, Sibusiso Mxosana, LJ Neilson, Thami Njoko, Chloe Perling, Sabelo Radebe, JP Rossouw, Jonathan Roxmouth, Zolani Shangase, Gemma Trehearn, Craig Urbani, Sarah-Ann van der Merwe, Filipa van Eck, Tamryn van Houten, Tevin Weiner, Duane Williams and Kristin Wilson. The orchestra comprises Elsabe Laubscher (coordinator), Serge Cuca, Elbe Henkins, Ivo Ivanov, Daline Wilson, Dorota Swart, Song Ha Choi, Evert van Niekerk, Katrien Jooster, Ane van Staaden, Viara and Adrie Naude (violin); Carel Henn, Susan Mouton, Maureen Marler and Gerrit Koorsen (cello); Christi Swanepoel (double bass); Helen Vosloo, Anna Maria Muller and Handri Loots (flute); David Sendef and Donny Bouwer (trumpet); Siya Charles (trombone); Shanon Armer (horn); Brahm Henkins (bassoon); Gerben Grooten (percussion); and Chrisa Smit, Carl Ashford and James Green (reeds), conducted by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder assisted by Marga Sander. The band comprises Dawid Bowehoff, Matthew Foster, James Lombard, Justin Carter and Aldert du Toit. It is at the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Joburg theatre complex, Braamfontein, until March 5. Call 011 877 6800 or visit www.joburtheatre.com