Songs, stories, sass and a sombrero

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James Cairns stars in the one-man show, El Blanco: Tales of the Mariachi, to be staged at the Schlesinger Theatre at Michaelhouse on February 3. Picture by Dex Goodma

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BY BILLY SUTER

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Twenty Questions with James Cairns, star of one of the highlights of the 2015 Hilton Arts Festival – the smart and sassy one-hander, El Blanco: Tales of the Mariachi. It will be staged at the Schlesinger Theatre at Michaelhouse, Balgowan, at 7.30pm on Friday, February 3. A masterful and delightful blend of amusing storytelling and fun music, the one-man show meshes stories and songs based on everything from Mexican creation myths and ancient Egyptians to, er, George Clooney. Penned by Gwydion Beynon (The Epicene Butcher, Amateur Hour), the show leads theatre-goers through a chain of false epiphanies which only lead the hero, El Blanco, back into self-doubt. As the story progresses, we discover that lies often reveal truths that would otherwise remain unspoken. Don’t miss it! Tickets cost R100 and booking is http://www.tickethut.co.za/michaelhouse or by e-mailing Angela Jonsson at theatre@michaelhouse.org

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WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO PEOPLE TO ENCOURAGE THEM TO BOOK TO SEE ‘EL BLANCO: TALES OF THE MARIARCHI’?

I would say: “Kamaan! Do it! You can! I love you!”

WHAT SURPRISES ARE IN THE SHOW? WHAT MAKES IT SPECIAL?

El Blanco talks to that sense that many of us have… that we’ve sold out or will sell out and that there is no way back to the life we thought we’d have. There are also songs and they are loud. Also, there is a sombrero and there’s nothing bad about sombreros — unless you’re trying to get onto public transport.

WHERE AND WHEN WAS IT FIRST STAGED, HOW MANY PERFORMANCES HAVE THERE BEEN TO DATE, AND HOW FAR AFIELD HAS IT TRAVELLED?

El Blanco was first performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2015. Since then it’s been around – Joburg, Brighton (UK), Hilton and will be in Cape Town and Joburg again in March and April this year. Off the top of my head, we’re on about 50 shows now.

WHAT CHALLENGES DID/DOES THIS SHOW OFFER YOU?

It’s a solo show and with it come all the things that usually come with working alone. You’re like the sniper of the theatre industry. In and out, get the job done, drink alone in a bar where no-one knows you… go home and don’t make a fuss. Although snipers don’t wear sombreros. Unless they’re Mexican snipers. That’s how you know.

WHAT MEMORABLE MOMENTS – WHAT ANECDOTES – ASSOCIATED WITH THIS SHOW?

In Brighton, I was on a bus, standing at the bottom where old people and mothers with babies sit, because the rest was full. I wasn’t going very far. There was an old lady telling random people around her about a show she saw at the festival that was just the best thing she’d ever seen. It was something very famous and very British, and I thought I’d never get a punter like her in the audience… and that’s the best kind of person you can have in an audience – someone who’ll give you a public plug in a bus! I lamented my lack of ‘name’ in the UK and went about my business for the day. Well, wasn’t it just the best when she arrived at El Blanco, sat in the front row and stood up at the end to clap. For the rest of the festival I happily imagined her telling her fellow bus-travellers about the wonderful show she had seen about a Mexican man who sorted his strange little life out, and that they should go and see it too. In my imagination, she would also have commented on what a mellifluous voice he had too.

WHERE WAS THE SHOW STAGED MOST RECENTLY, AND WHERE TO AFTER MICHAELHOUSE?

The last show was in Brighton and the next one’s in Cape Town, at the Kalk Bay Theatre.

WHERE AND WHEN WERE YOU BORN, HOW DID YOU GET INTO THEATRE, AND WHAT MARKED YOUR FIRST BIG BREAK?

I was born in Oxford in the UK, but left very shortly afterwards and have lived all over South Africa. I got into theatre because it was the one thing I was actually good at. There hasn’t really been a big break… just a long progression of small breaks – cracks, really – that have all united to form the cumulative big break.

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James Cairns as El Blanco. Picture by Dex Goodman

WHAT HAVE BEEN CAREER HIGHLIGHTS?

Performing Three Little Pigs at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013… and being mistakenly mentioned in the press for having received three Naledi Awards. I have never received a Naledi.

WHAT FIVE WORDS BEST DESCRIBE YOU?

Corpulent, hungry, loud, drunk, louder.

WHAT ARE FIVE THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF (HOWEVER TRIVIAL) THAT PEOPLE ARE UNLIKELY TO KNOW

I am an insatiable history buff. I have a heroin-like addiction to rugby. I love Korean food. I have three gold teeth. I love guns with all my heart, but I can’t bear killing things.

YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT ON STAGE EVER?

It was in a show put together by my then-boss – who shall remain unnamed (but I think he’s a Michaelhouse old boy) – who didn’t quite get it together to direct a show for the National Arts Festival. But we went on anyway. and after 35 minutes and a golf clap from the audience, we left the stage and went to Spur to drink, because we thought no-one would see us there. Of course, some of the audience also needed a drink after what they’d been subjected to by us… and happened to sit in clear sight and earshot at the Spur. Then a bunch of actor friends arrived and joined us, and we had to explain why we were so depressed in a loud whisper so that the erstwhile audience members wouldn’t realise how terribly they’d been had. I cried myself to sleep that night.

THE MOST FAMOUS PERSON YOU HAVE MET – AND WHO WOULD YOU GIVE GOLD TO MEET?

I once did some scenes with Ewen Bremner (Spud in Trainspotting) in Strike Back. Also, I once had lunch with Mr Kikwete, the then-president of Tanzania. I would give gold to meet Putin. I’d love to see those eyes live in action.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST SURPRISING THING SOMEONE HAS SAID OF YOU?

“You actually have not won the award we gave you two weeks ago”. That was pretty surprising.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE HIGHLIGHT OF YOUR YEAR SO FAR?

Watching Trapped on Netflix.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE FICTION HEROES/ AND REAL-LIFE HEROES?

Real-life heroes are not really a thing for me, but I do have a weakness for Bilbo Baggins.

IF YOU COULD HAVE ANY FIVE THINGS FROM FIVE DIFFERENT PEOPLE, WHAT AND WHO WOULD THEY BE?

The Kruger Millions, from Paul Kruger. A Faberge Egg, from the Romanovs. The Codes, from The President. The Time Travel Devices from the illuminati. And the iPhone 7se from Apple… please.

WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU EVER RECEIVED – AND WHO GAVE IT?

Face the front and make sure they can hear yo …it came from my high school drama teacher, Kevin McLachlan.

WHAT THOUGHTS ON REINCARNATION? AND IF YOU COULD CHOOSE, WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO COME BACK AS IN YOUR NEXT LIFE?

I’d like to come back as a cyborg bird with super AI powers. And missiles. So really, a drone without a controller, a free drone. Don’t forget the missiles.

THE BEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER HAD? AND THE WORST?

The best compliment I had was “Funnier than Dylan Moran” which was a headline in response to El Blanco – very flattering. The worst was a TV director who told me, “You’re a very giving actor”. In other words… stop doing so much, this isn’t your scene, stand still and let Famous Guy have his moment.


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