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.

Biases, secrets of a sweet old curmudgeon

MrGreen
NOW, you listen to me! Mr Green (Michael Richard) and Ross Gardiner (Roberto Pombo). Photograph by Philip Kuhn.

IT’S EASY TO get emotionally entwined in the harsh finger-pointing that sees the elderly of a community abandoned. It makes for predictable storytelling and indictments on the callousness of the younger generation. What is more difficult is representing the other side of a story that is about rejection and grandstanding, discrimination and a lack of forgiveness. This is the great edge of Jeff Baron’s play, Visiting Mr Green as it slices open the inner life of a little old Jewish man (played impeccably by Michael Richard), with European roots, fresh widowhood and not much of a will to live.

Skip two generations in American Jewry and enter Ross Gardiner (Roberto Pombo), a young Harvard graduate who made a traffic error and is here in this cluttered little one bedroomed flat on a weekly basis, as penance. And thus unfolds a quirky and deeply moving tale that takes the two characters on an unexpectedly intimate journey of self discovery.

And while you think you know what you can anticipate in this story, which on a level seems to echo the narratives lines in works such as Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks both of which have been staged in this theatre – in that it’s about the fierceness of an ageing person to protect their dignity at all costs, and their making friends with a young stranger, there’s a twist in the tale in this one that will take your breath away. Visiting Mr Green is a play that takes no prisoners in how it reflects on the persecution issues but also the deeply grounded biases of a certain generation of Jewry. And there are statements and interjections that pepper the text to make you cringe. Beautifully.

Ultimately, it’s a work which offers the main protagonist a vindication for values and opinions so old and crusty that he’s learnt to take them as truths. If you were shattered by the volte face movement in Retief Scholtz’s Dop — and his Karel se Oupa — this play will touch you to the core.

The work is crafted with an immensely sophisticated understanding of these people and this generation, and design elements complement the material so well that you can almost smell the must in the neglected apartment as the waterworks reverberate rudely. There’s an interesting use of radio advertisements and Yiddish songs and doggerel from 1950s America to separate the work into scenes, and Pombo opposite Richard is absolutely magnificent. There’s an energy of empathetic choreography here that uplifts the old man as it gives the young one soul. In this, work we see Pombo coming into his own as a serious performer, with a sense of authority, dignity and discipline that is a joy to watch. Richard embraces all the endearing and horrifying curmudgeonly behaviour of Mr Green who softens as the play unfolds, but who represents the hard shell of stubbornness, with utter conviction, Polish Yiddish accent flavoured with a taste of New York, completely intact.

It’s a dream team that lends this work edge and relevance, toughness and beauty in a complex and nuanced context, brought to life with rigorously kosher values and unrelenting judgmentalism. You might have a Mr Green in your own roots. Don’t forget to bring tissues.

  • Visiting Mr Green is written by Jeff Baron and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It features design by Denis Hutchinson (set and lighting), Margo Fleish (costumes), Dean Pitman (soundscape) and Stan Knight (set construction) and is performed by Roberto Pombo and Michael Richard, at Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until June 9. Call 011-883-8606

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 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

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.

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.

Victory in true style for Mr Toad

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OUT, damned opportunists! Mr Toad (Gamelihle Bovana) and his buddies save Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats. From left Badger (JT Medupe), Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and Mole (John Tsenoli). Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

IF YOU GREW up under the spell of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, you will remember that there was always a delicious ferocity about Mr Toad, with his short squat body, his big toady eyes and his enormous mouth. It’s difficult to recall whether it was the wild yet sedate original illustrations of EH Shepard that conveyed this, or Grahame’s impeccable descriptions. Either way, and even if you are not a Wind in the Willows groupie, the fact is that Gamelihle Bovana in the title role of this production of The Adventures of Mr Toad conveys this fabulous mix of bravado and vulnerability, courage and sheer character: he’s a toad to melt your heart.

Indeed, Francois Theron’s rendition of this great classic about friendship and naughtiness, scary forests and bad weasels, as well as comforting cups of tea in moments of great stress and comeuppance for breaking the law, is one of those works which leaps off the stage and into your child’s awareness. For one thing, it is beautifully cast. The three fellows – the pedantic and short-sighted Mole (John Tsenoli), the adventurous and proper Water Rat (Bradley Nowikow) and the wise old Badger (JT Medupe), who has a low tolerance for misbehaviour – form a gorgeously formidable phalanx of dependable friends on which the maverick Toad can rest.

With a complex tale of adventure and prison, the hijacking of a 15th century manor by weasels and ultimate victory, it’s a work that features language that doesn’t patronise; while a very young audience might find some of the words unfamiliar, it’s a show replete with such a beautiful understanding of music and movement, gesture, colour and the rhythm of sound, that the story remains strong even if its subtleties are lost for the tots.

Structured around turn-of-the-century British properness, the adventure, focused on the lives of river folk is as anthropomorphic as possible. There’s a resonance between the costumes and concept that informed this theatre’s production of A Year With Frog and Toad some seasons back, and also an element of the hilarity that brought Martin Rosen’s interpretation of Richard Adams’s Watership Down to filmed life in the 1970s, where rabbits prate away like real English gentlemen.

The set, complete with utterly ingenious elements that are hinged on the horizontal and enable a whole landscape to be magically erected, embraces the work magnificently and with great simplicity. In the first half, we’re introduced to the foursome and get to understand the challenges of having the Toad, he of old wealth and inherited luxuries as a buddy: he’s a faddish bloke, who gets bored easily, but who also takes things to their giddy limit.

In the second part of the work, you will be swept off your feet by Senzesihle Radebe as the magistrate in full command, with a voice to match.

Beautifully structured and gem-like in its crafted quality, where all the elements fit together unmistakably well, it’s a play that is about the novelty of the motor car as it is about the majesty of Toad Hall. In short, this is a work which will leave you glowing with its unequivocal sense of humanity and decency as it balances with an unbridled sense of moral irresponsibility and naughtiness. An utter delight.

  • The Adventures of Mr Toad is based on the book The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring creative input by Piers Chater Robinson (lyrics and music), Neil Brand (musical arrangement), Clint Lesch (musical supervisor), Jodie Renouf Davimes (choreography), Stan Knight (set), Jane Gosnell (lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes), it is performed by Gamelihle Bovana, Philip Hanly, Kirsty Marillier, JT Medupe, Garth Meijsen, Bradley Nowikow, Senzesihle Radebe and John Tsenoli, and three alternate children’s casts: Pascalle Durand, Christina Moshides and Keisha van der Merwe, Telaine Tuson and Naledi Setzin; and Emma Martin, Erin Atkins and Julia Johnson, at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown until July 23. Visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za or call 011 484 1584.

Same differences, different sameness and the glory of being seven

Freckleface
SAGE advice of a wise mommy: Megan van Wyk and Kirsty Marillier see the other side of freckles. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre

There’s an almost audible click, that the audience can hear, when performers in a show collaborate with a generous and real spirit of enthusiasm. And there’s almost an audible click when a cast sings with a production, not only in the literal sense, but also because they really get it. The rarity of both these things happening in a production takes your breath away because it is flawless: Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is a simple tale about bullying and friendship which is told with a deft directness, a sparkly sense of self and a true spirit of collaboration, enabling everyone on the creative team to give of their very best.

Led by Kirsty Marillier, who is cast so perfectly, she has the whole stage in her hand from the get go, this delicious little tale of the horrors and pleasures of being different takes you immediately into the rough and tumble of a seven-year-old context. It’s a story of bicycle riding and the tooth fairy, of gentle malice born of observation that is enabled to grow into something wretched, and of dreams that little boys and girls are allowed to have. While it is a little heavy handed on how the idea of marriage and babies represents unequivocal success, everything else about this autobiographical tale rings real, and the work never teeters into utter saccharine.

We’re all a little bit of a Freckleface, with our personal idiosyncrasies and our silent envy of other people’s perfections. This play very beautifully embraces those insecurities which are part of the human condition, with the interlocked narratives of eight children and a baby brother who wears a colander (Brandon Loelly), sparked into life with dreams and nightmares, the advice of a wise mommy and the part time sanctuary of an itchy woollen mask. It’s about vocalised ambitions to be the best and unspoken ones about fearing that you’re never good enough, and conjoined with its lyrics and its choreography, this production fits with as satisfying a ‘click’ as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

And everyone, literally everyone – Teekay Baloyi, Megan van Wyk, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radedbe, Brandon Loelly and Megan Rigby – simply glows in this work. The crowning skill remains in the hand of director, Francois Theron because no one shines brighter than anyone else, and the flow of the story is delicate and robust enough to bring its message across. While the eponymous little redhead remains at the front and centre of the tale, she remains one of the kids in the best possible way. This rendition of the play – it was performed at this theatre in 2014 – will leave you with a different understanding of your own differences, but also with an awareness that you’ve just witnessed something deliciously perfect.

  • Freckleface Strawberry The Musical is written by Julianne Moore and directed by Francois Theron. Featuring design by Stan Knight (set), Rowan Bakker (musical supervision), Shelley Adriaanzen (original choreography), Phillida Le Roux (staging), Sarah Roberts (costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting), it is performed by Teekay Baloyi, Brandon Loelly, Kirsty Marillier, Dihan Schoeman, Caitlyn Thomson, Senzo Radebe, Megan Rigby and Megan van Wyk, it is at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, until April 13. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za/

Fiona gives Poison wings

blondepoison
REGRETS, I’ve had a few: Fiona Ramsay plays Stella Goldschlag. Photograph courtesy www.artslink.co.za

CAN SOMETHING AS thoroughly written about as the European Holocaust still engage a contemporary audience with a modicum of freshness? Or are we, as a society so limp with Holocaust fatigue in our histories and fictional accounts that another Holocaust play trotting out narratives we know well, has scant impact? This is a question you might ponder, with Blonde Poison. But unequivocally, as you watch the work, the authority Fiona Ramsay exudes across this tale of betrayal and hate, beauty and ugliness, is the ingredient that makes the work tick.

As it opens with the ripe and gravelly German accent of Stella Goldschlag and the story begins to elegantly unfurl, taking us back to Berlin in the 1930s under Janna Ramos-Violante’s expert direction and Ramsay’s utterly tight and masterful portrayal, you’re not quite sure of Stella’s identity. She’s blonde. She’s very German, but she’s too blasé in her condemnation of Jews and her knowledge of Jewish cuisine not to be a Jew herself. This self-assurance, this element of jazzy pizzazz gives her the edge and forces her over it, in the name of self-preservation.

The interface of sound and voice overs and the elements of the set, are tightly woven into the narrative, which casts an understanding of context that is sophisticated as it is descriptive and evocative, never leaning toward gimmick. The texture of the play is strong and the language powerful, but still, as the text teeters around that “parachute moment” in war when morals have to be cast aside in the name of saving your own life, you’re left feeling that you know this story. You know how it will end.

You know there will be a tremendous amount of loss and death on the way. And you know that you’ll feel your emotions pushed and pulled in different directions as anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews comes under the proverbial loupe. And in having this sense of knowledge, you lose an aspect of horror. You’ve been down these paths before. You’ve shouted and cried before. You might not do it again.

In short, the play casts a cardboard cut-out reflection on the morality of history. Ramsay is too sophisticated a performer to slip into this kind of one-dimensionality and she lifts and stretches the work, through her presence in it, way beyond its potential. So, what you get is an extraordinary theatre experience, premised on a fairly ordinary play, but populated with such astute performance and design skill, that any flaws in the predictability of the work become forgivable.

  • Blonde Poison is written by Gail Louw and directed by Janna Ramos-Violante. Featuring design by Alex Farmer (lighting) and Stan Knight (set construction), it is performed by Fiona Ramsay with voice overs by James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until February 4. Call 011 883-8606 or visit theatreonthesquare.co.za

How a handful of penguins can change your day

popperspenguins
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

The wisdom of Pippi

pippi
WHAT: Me worry? Not a chance. Pippi (Yarden Dagan) confronts the establishment: the welfare officer Mrs Prysselius (Sandy Bota) with the cops, Klang (Graeme Wicks) and Kling (Marvin Molepo). Photograph courtesy artslink.co.za

NOËL COWARD ARTICULATED it first in his 1935 song: Children on stage are complicated. They haven’t the work ethic of professionals. They can lose their hold on their character when they recognise people in the audience. Their parents can be the thing that pushes them into the limelight. They can grow irritatingly precocious, show off and bruise their role. But when you discover a child capable of graciously sidestepping all those clichés, you’ve got to hold tight: Eleven-year-old Yarden Dagan captures this spunky maverick with a maturity beyond her years and an ability to seduce the audience which simply makes this show fly.

Not that the adult casting for this work is shabby or lacking in any way. Indeed, headed by Luciano Zuppa, who plays an utterly delightful Captain Longstocking and Thunder, one of the incompetent crooks; and Sandy Bota, as the inimitable Mrs Prysselius who blends prissyness and bossiness with a real ability to jive, the work is bold and beautiful and beggars comparison with the version that this theatre produced some years ago.

It’s got to do with the magic ingredient of the children themselves, and the astute wisdom of the play’s director, Francois Theron, to know when and where it is appropriate to cast the littlies. This Pippi Longstocking is a sheer delight: in terms of how the work engages the audience, how the child herself is able to give this naughty little girl who was invented in the 1940s contemporary flesh and blood that is unapologetically rooted in Sweden and unapologetically about thumbing a nose to convention.

But something has to be said for that wig alone. Complementing a fantastically detailed body of costumes by Sarah Roberts, the characteristic red Pippi wig with plaits akimbo almost deserves a credit of its own. Poking into the eyes of the neighbouring kids, Tommy (Matthew Rusznyak) and Annika (Rufaro Shava), it’s cheeky and raucous and completely solid in how it embraces Pippi’s values and personality.

Like the Harvey Comics character Little Lotta, in a sense, Pippi Longstocking is amazingly strong. She’s also super-likeable for her peers, has total disdain for regimented order and pattern and is feared and detested by the adult community, for this reason. Indeed, the work presents the adults in it as considerably unsophisticated in their values. Pippi is a wild child, who arrives out of nowhere in suburbia, to live alone with her pet monkey called Mr Nielson and a horse in her kitchen. Her mother is an angel in heaven and her father is a pirate on the high seas. And armed with these credentials, and a big bag full of pirate gold, she’s an anomaly who can sing, dance and makes up life as she goes.

And the message: that life is about a lot more than following the rules or slipping into a puddle of self-pity. It’s about acting on instinct, about not being afraid to make mistakes and be vulnerable. And it’s about loving honestly and deeply.

  • Pippi Longstocking – The Musical is adapted for stage by Staffan Götestam, based on the eponymous children’s book by Astrid Lindgren. It is directed by Francois Theron and features design by Dale Scheepers (musical director), Nicol Sheraton (choreography), Sarah Roberts (costumes), Stan Knight (set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It is performed by Zoe Beavon, Sandy Bota, Marvin Molepo, Genevieve Olivier, Roberto Queiroz, Graeme Wicks and Luciano Zuppa, and three child casts, comprising Hannah Cohen, Yarden Dagan, Simone Greely, Khensani Mabaso, Gabriel Poulson, Matthew Rusznyak, Rufaro Shava, Max Stern and Ricci Waksman [this review is based on the work featuring Yarden Dagan, Matthew Rusznyak and Rufaro Shava] at the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown, Johannesburg, until October 16. Call 011 484 1584 or visit nationalchildrenstheatre.org.za