Of magic recorders, whacked rats and homeless children

piedpiper
EYES left: The children, (Pascalle Durant, Gugu Dlamini and Gomolemo Tsosane) negotiate with the rich: the Mayor (Gamelihle Bovana) and his Assistant (Danny Meaker). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

UNEQUIVOCALLY DARK IN its condemnation of the hypocrisy and divide in society, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was penned by Robert Browning in 1842. Like Charles Dickens’s work, it holds a strange kind of magic which makes it understood to be for children, but the message is grim and the issues terrifying. It takes a very special directorial hand to be able magic all 303 lines of the famous poem, in rhyming couplets into a context that is fresh and locally relevant and appropriate for young audiences. This is what you get in the National Children’s Theatre’s production of Pied Piper. Bearing the unmistakable mark of Francois Theron’s artistic magic, the story of corruption and economic divides, of rats and a magical being who knows more about children and their contexts, and music and its value than the stuffy old wealthy blokes do, simply sparkles.

Couching the tale in a South African context, where the mayor (Gamelihle Bovana) is self-contained and filled with air, twiddle twaddle and blah-blah-blah, to say nothing of a lack of empathy and too much self-love, the work centres on the street kids, who have nothing but make do. Gugu Dlamini embraces the role of the lame boy who is something of a hero, articulating the truism that each person has their own talents and tasks, which doesn’t necessarily coincide with what anyone else does or can do. Dlamini’s theatrical robustness lends her presence and credibility, enabling her to carry the work’s local back story in conjunction with Browning’s.

And with the wonderful child performer, Pascalle Durand as Sam, the work has a texture and a local sense of integrity that enables earnest and delightful asides, keeping you focused on the children but not compromising the plot. Durand is a delightful child with unabashed personality. She embraces her role completely, and of course, there’s the adorable factor too, but this young lady grabs the soul of her performance (and you in the audience) simply and directly by the heart.

It’s an adventure like no other, with nuggets of service delivery protests, comments of  local status quo and real dreams of South Africa’s homeless, tucked into its interstices without being crass or silly or hurting the flow of the work. Songs framed by chestnuts from The Sound of Music, or part songs that children still sing, have been wonderfully reworked with lyrics that fit the story, and the set is just completely astonishing – offering a magical yet real sense of space, geography and texture.

Pied Piper resonates like a National Children’s Theatre classic: it’s local, it’s informed, it’s innovative and it will leave you – and your child – with the kind of energy and optimism that a tonic brings.

  • Pied Piper is written by Robert Browning. Directed by Renos Nicos Spanoudes and Sarah Barlin, it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Gugu Dlamini, Danny Meaker, Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson and Kopano Tshabalala, and a child cast comprising Group 1: Pascalle Durand, Kesiah Irvin, Lwazi Ntombela and Gomolemo Tsosane; Group 2: Shayna Burg, Tlholego Mabitsi, Tlhopilwe Mabitsi and Matthew Ruzsnyak; and Group 3: Erin Atkins, Kefilwe Gaborone, Tebo Moahloli and Hloniphile Myaka. This review is premised on the performance of Group 1 with the cast. It features design by Dale Scheepers (musical directions), Sibusiso Nhlapo (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Mike Koenig, Yo Mama and Daniel Simion (sound effects) and performs until July 15 at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown. Call 011 484 1584.

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 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.