One for the werewolf in your wardrobe

IrmaVep

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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Uys, unpowdered

Echo

A boy and his kitty: Pieter-Dirk Uys as a child. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.

THE CHALLENGE OF conjuring freshness on stage is one not easily met. The challenge of conjuring freshness on stage, and making them laugh, and making them cry, and making them stand in awestruck ovation at the end, particularly after a lifetime of being on stage, is even tougher. Now at 71, self-styled veteran South African jester Pieter Dirk Uys does it again. His Echo of a Noise is a beautifully honed, all holds barred autobiography that ramps up his stage persona considerably: nary a heel or a wig in sight.

This is Uys stripped bare, using only his words and his memories, his inimitable face and his sheer honesty to convey portraits of his loved ones: his mother, Helga; his father, Hannes and his domestic maid, Sannie. And if you’ve read Uys’s autobiography Erections and Elections, you might have an inkling as to how some of the tale unfolds, but still, the work is fresh and pure. It’s funny and frank, candid and tragic, and conveyed with an infinitesimal sense of realness that is Uys.

It’s about an adoration of Sophia Loren and of Amadeus Mozart. It’s a confrontation with the idea of heaven and that of hell. And a speculation as to where cats like Boeboe end up. It’s a piano’s journey from Germany to Africa and back again, and a confession about his mother’s identity, and it contains and is defined by earth-shattering realisations about history and horror.

One moment in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971) makes the film, a surreal tale of death and whimsy, with the fabulous Ruth Gordon in a central role, into a Holocaust film. It’s unspoken. It’s brief. But it is so devastatingly poignant that it becomes the nub on which the whole tale rests. Something similar happens in Uys’s confrontation with his mother’s identity. It happens over a cup of tea, with a woman from his mother’s childhood, and involves a tattoo of many numbers.

But the tale does not hold tight onto terrible moments and like a spot of quicksilver, it rambles away in a diversity of directions and with nuance and tears, fondness and laughter, Uys paints his mother: a gifted pianist with secrets and great sadness but also an ability to laugh with abandon. He paints his father with a devastating sense of balance and an unequivocal focus on the vagaries of old age and the tightness of discipline and church. Above all, he paints his family’s domestic maid with fondness and hilarity, revealing her as a prism to all the idiosyncrasy that constitutes what being South African in a world torn by values and rules, meant.

Echo of a Noise contains the sadness of sudden loss and the sadness of anticipated loss that constitutes some of the fabric of being alive in this world, replete as it is with broken dreams and shams. But it doesn’t allow itself to slip into maudlin, and you’re left utterly in awe for the man who makes it happen. It’s like spending a privileged 90 minutes having an intimate cup of tea with a giant: one you won’t forget in a hurry. It will touch you deeply – and it’s worth travelling to Cape Town for, in July, if you can’t make it tomorrow in Johannesburg.

  • Echo of a Noise is written and performed by Pieter-Dirk Uys at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, until April 9, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from July 4-15. Call 021-438-3301 or visit pietertoerien.co.za. See a political commentary on this show here.
  • In response to popular demand, the show will be staged for another brief season at the Studio theatre, Montecasino, June 14-18.

On losing the plot and laughing all the way home

PlayWrong

THINGS fall apart: from left, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubungxa, Nicole Franco and Russel Savadier. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze.

YOU HAVE AN inkling as to what you can expect by the very name of this production, and you won’t be disappointed: very few things actually go right in this insane little bit of farcical frippery. The sheer skill that goes into clowning at its classically best, is remarkable, and this madcap cast of eight projects the loosely held together tale of a murder performed by an amateur dramatics association. And loosely is truly the operative adjective, when it comes to how the ingenious set itself plays a seminal and pants-wettingly funny role in the shenanigans.

From a dog that is mimed to a clock that doubles as the female lead, the work gets wilder and more insane as it unfolds. Corpses cry out in pain and floors fall. The sequence of lines becomes tumultuous at best, and the chap operating the special effects locates a missing Duran Duran CD amidst dramatic moments on stage. A bunch of keys doubles as a pen, some white spirits insinuates itself into the props in lieu of whisky and a portrait of a spaniel seconds as someone’s dad. In short, everything that can go wrong, does.

Featuring a splendid cast which hone this material and milk it for every laugh in the house, the work is headed by a delightful performance by Russel Savadier as the inspector. And while some of the errors in the splay of values of this work are so wrong that they’re too much – from the mispronunciation of terms by Roberto Pombo’s character to the woodenness of Sive Gubungxa’s character – the laughs will burst from your lips with abandon, and will develop their own momentum.

The danger of a play of its nature, however, is there is a limit to the kind of surprises that you can stomach, and at some moments, your eyes glaze over from too much raucous explosions and it becomes tedious. The crispness of the madness, the bizarreness of the mishaps becomes so great that they actually hurt the play.  If you think back to the inimitable Noises Off, performed a number of years ago in this theatre, there is a level of resonance with this work, but given that amateur is a part of how the work is premised, there’s a tad too much obvious over-acting, which makes the clowning veer a little on the side of crass. Something of Jemma Kahn’s Amateur Hour raises its head in this work.

Having said that, it’s a delicious bit of fun which will leave you still laughing as you drive home: the kind of tonic we all need right now.

  • The Play that Goes Wrong is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Alan Committie. It features design by Malcolm Terrey (costumes) and Bronwyn Leigh Gottwald (props co-ordinator) and is performed by Nicole Franco, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubangxa, Craig Jackson, Theo Landey, Roberto Pombo, Russel Savadier and Louis Viljoen at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino Fourways, until April 30 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from May 3 until June 17. Call 011 511-1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za

Let’s hear it for the boys

joseph

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

Fridjhon’s Sherlock simply queens it

sherlockholmes

DOING it for Queen and country: Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson putting twirls on the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za 

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the intricate melding of the minutiae of Victorian language with contemporary ideas, the blossoming into life of a multitude of characters supported by the hand-held technology resonant of radio theatre, and the shenanigans and skulduggery penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th century. All in one evening’s theatre experience. Playwright and performer Robert Fridjhon brings all of this together with utter finesse.

But it is the directorial hand of Alan Swerdlow that adds the cherry on top of this very fine and beautifully crafted piece of work which will have you laughing out loud even if you have come to the theatre on your own. Blending sophisticated if oft very rude repartee and a rash of puns with sheer slapstick comedy and engagement with the audience might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and it certainly isn’t within every cast’s capabilities – but here you get it all, tweaked by an exceptionally ably cast into an intelligent and nuanced laugh-a-second fest. It’s Sherlock Holmes with a dollop of farce, a peppering of British self-deprecation and some of the most hilarious costume decisions you can imagine.

And while there are some digressions in a Goonish or a Monty Pythonesque direction, and you may expect to see a dead parrot at any moment, you don’t: the references are contained and teased out as references and the work holds its own with complete excellence, foraying into issues of sexuality that the Sherlock Holmes tales have always hidden under carpets and in cupboards.

As with many performed murder mysteries reaching from the repertoire of film stars such as Margaret Rutherford and Myrna Loy, often it is the hilarity of the tale rather than the nitty gritty or bloodiness of the crime that are the central focus. Similarly, Fridjhon’s Sherlock Holmes teases apart an alleged stealing of the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, the biggest in the world, which is owned by Queen Victoria, into a madcap journey between England and France, with a bit of Indian colonialism in between, replete with a couple of murder victims who are actually not dead: it’s stuff to make your head spin.

The work’s small versatile cast simply sparkles: and the helpless laughter you experience in the context of sheer beautiful farce pervades, as the work casts the whole improvised business of a play within a play on a theatre stage. Craig Jackson as Dr Watson (amongst others) and Bronwyn Gottwald as the inimitable Mrs Hudson (amongst others), are utterly perfect for the complexity of the roles, and everything from a self-standing big dress for Queen Victoria to a cat’s tail which becomes the British Prime Minister’s moustache will have you screeching with mirth. But a warning to the unsuspecting: Don’t see this play on a full bladder. It’s as good as it gets.

  • Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Queen’s Diamond: An Unrecorded Case, by Royal Request is written by Robert Fridjhon and Bronwyn Gottwald and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until January 15, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, January 18-28. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Fat and sassy

myfatfriend

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