BILLY SUTER looks back on the highlights of his theatre-going year
AS 2017 draws to a close – my first year as an independent website entertainment writer after 39 years in the newspaper world, 24 of them as arts editor of Durban’s The Mercury – it is time to reflect on the highs and lows of the theatre year.
I was very fortunate to have been invited to review both Durban and national theatre this year, although obviously did not see everything that was staged countrywide, so bear that in mind when I list my personal picks of the year’s shows.
My favourite musical of the year stood head and shoulders above all competition. It was the Fugard Theatre’s West Side Story, with two of the country’s top talents, Jonathan Roxmouth and Lynelle Kenned, as the leads. I saw it in Johannesburg earlier this year.
West Side Story was phenomenal, moved me to tears, and blew me away with its performances and design. It is one of the best musicals I have seen on the South African stage, and I have already booked plane tickets to catch its revival at Cape Town’s Artscape theatre in March.
In second place among my favourite 2017 musicals is another I saw in Johannesburg – the touring South African production of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, a crazy whirl of giddy gaiety, which provided the most fun I have had in a theatre all year.
The show, using pop and disco hits as a score, was camper than a caravan park and featured 471 costumes, 45 wigs, 120 pairs of shoes, 200 hats and head-dresses, piles of glitter and a variety of specially created make-up masks.
In third spot among musicals I most enjoyed this year was Chicago, a brilliant Durban production of a classic – re-envisioned with elements of both the original ’70s staging and the more recent, sexier, revivals, by the inventive Steven Stead, Greg King and their wonderful KickstArt theatre company.
The standout in this, for me, was the unfailingly delightful Jessica Sole, in the role of foxy murderess Roxy Hart… with a special mention going to a delicious Ann-Marie Clulow, in the supporting role of newspaper reporter Mary Sunshine. Inspired casting and character reinvention from both Clulow and director Stead.
In fourth and fifth place, respectively, on my list of favourite musicals this year, were the Johannesburg touring production of Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (an ebullient, choreography-packed show that was camper than Christmas) and the current touring production of Evita, although I maintain the Durban production from the 1990s, that starred Brenda Radloff, was better.
Disappointments on the musicals front this year? Enjoyable enough though it was, the touring, award-winning Hedwig and the Angry Inch (which took pride of place at this year’s Hilton Arts Festival) let me down just a little bit…and I can’t exactly say why. Perhaps it is because I enjoyed the film so much more.
My biggest disappointment, however, was a comedy I drove to Johannesburg to see –The Play That Goes Wrong. People whose opinions I respect were raving, and while everyone around me collapsed in heaps of laughter during this screwball farce, if I chuckled four times throughout it was a lot.
I just didn’t get it. Maybe I was in a bad mood. I found it all silly, a slapstick overload with too many repetitions, and I honestly could not see what the fuss was about.
On the drama front, I was most blown away this year by a Hilton Arts Festival find, The Inconvenience of Wings. Emotionally draining – I was a wreck; all snot-en-trane – it is a work for which Lara Foot rightly scooped the Fleur du Cap Award for best director, while leads Andrew Buckland and Jennifer Steyn, both sensationally good, were also deservedly rewarded with Fleur du Caps.
Set amid memories and dreams, the play tackles dysfunction, friendship, love, addiction and angels as it examines a husband and wife, and their children, devastated by her strong and violent reactions to bipolar disorder. Masterfully acted and directed, it was hard to watch at times, but made for absolutely brilliant theatre.
Also a knockout, and packing a mighty emotional punch, was Scorched, performed as part of a fine Women’s Arts Festival at Durban’s Playhouse in August. It was a complex and moving drama of love, hate, lies, secrets and horror, which collected two Naledi Theatre Awards for acting (Ilse Klink and Ameera Patel) and for directing (Jade Bowers).
Running a very close third spot on my list of favourite drama moments in 2017 was Pieter-Dirk Uys’s mesmerising The Echo of a Noise.
A theatre legend, a master craftsman, a constant inspiration and a genuinely nice guy, Uys delivers his most poignant and gripping work to date with The Echo of a Noise. Since opening at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town last year, the show has played to full houses and sold-out seasons. I first saw it at last year’s Hilton Arts Festival at Hilton College, and enjoyed it again, every bit as much at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre earlier this year.
This is an understated but towering show that has the 72-year-old Uys defrocked, unpowdered, real and vulnerable… calling back his past with vivid vignettes, often with his customary mischievous twinkle, and also ploughing patches of pathos. Little wonder his performance spurred an instant standing ovation – both at Hilton last year and at the opening performance in Durban.
Fourth spot on my drama countdown goes to another Playhouse Women’s Arts Festival pick, the latest Paul Slabolepszy play, Suddenly the Storm, for which Durban’s Greg King won a Naledi Award for his detailed, brilliant set of a home interior with a workshop. It also took Naledis for Best New South African Script (Slabolepszy) and Best Lighting Design (Wesley France).
The play tells of a squabbling ex-cop and his much younger, ditzy wife, whose lives are disrupted and changed by a death and the arrival of an enigmatic stranger.
What a joy to see Durban’s Charmaine Weir-Smith on stage again at The Playhouse, alongside Slabolepszy and Renate Stuurman, all of them excellent under Bobby Heaney’s direction.
Spot No 5 on my drama list is shared by two productions, one being yet another Playhouse festival production, Crepuscule; based on the story of cultural icon and writer Can Themba; the other being Sylvaine Strike’s mesmerising production of Moliere’s Tartuffe, staged at the Courtyard Theatre at the Durban University of Technology.
Special mention must go to the touring production of The Mystery of Irma Vep, with both Weslee Swain Lauder and Jonathan Roxmouth hilarious in the tale by Charles Ludlum, a mickey-take of B-grade Gothic thrillers and the whole horror genre. The two actors played all of the show’s eight characters, including lunatics, beasts, ghouls and gentlefolk. Great fun!
Special mention, too, for Think Theatre’s Hamlet at The Playhouse in Durban. Clare Mortimer directed an accessible, well-paced version of the Bard’s longest and perhaps most influential play. It was staged with a mix of modern and military-styled costumes, depicting no specific time, and featured a truly excellent performance by Bryan Hiles in the name role.
I also have to record how much I enjoyed the latest show by Durban talents Ben Voss and John van de Ruit. Their latest production in their hit Mamba show series, Mamba Republic, was a delight – and toured countrywide.
After enjoying all of Durban playwright Clinton Marius’s varied works to date, I was let down by his Salon Sue, created as a vehicle for the talents of the animated and charismatic Maeshni Naicker – star of the Keeping Up with the Kandasamys movie. The play was not without its moments, but needs editing. It was plodding and episodic, sometimes corny and with too many repetitive gags.
On to music revues and cabaret. It was sad to see the closure of Umhlanga’s Barnyard Theatre at Gateway late last year, but great to welcome the new and similar Rockwood Theatre to Sibaya Casino recently. Long may it live!
And a special, hearty slap on the back to the passionate Roland Stansell and his Rhumbelow Theatre franchises in Durban, Kloof and Pietermaritzburg for continuing to provide regular entertainment offerings in spite of dwindling audiences. Long may they continue to do so.
I saw some great productions at the Rhumbelow Theatre last year, not least The Reals with their The Chain: The Fleetwood Mac Story; The Black Lapels with their Paul Simon: Road to Graceland and The Bob Dylan Tribute; the excellent Rusty Red and pals with their great Crossroads: Eric Clapton and Friends; Cathy Peacock and Platform Jazz with The Best of Swing; and Percy Smith, Marion Loudon and others with their fun party special, Gotta Lotta Soul.
The Rhumbelow Theatre production that stood out, however, was Soulfire and Fireflies, an elegant cabaret by Johannesburg’s Samantha Peo, backed by Durban pianist Evan Roberts. Star quality and superb vocals. Classy stuff.
Other shows of note this year were the fun KickstArt panto Sinbad the Sailor at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre; the Disney on Ice spectacle at the Durban Exhibition Centre; The Great Moscow Circus in Durban’s Suncoast Casino grounds; and the rollicking Northcliff High School touring production of the offbeat musical, Spamalot, performed at Durban’s Playhouse.
Names to watch in 2018, in my opinion? Definitely Phillip Schnetler, who made a marvellous Felicia in Priscilla Queen of the Desert; and beautiful-voiced Isabella Jane, so good as Juan Peron’s mistress, performing the standout Another Suitcase in Another Hall, in Evita.
I also have to mention Cornel Meyer, who was so very good on guitar and vocals for his debut showband show, The Black Lapels’s Bob Dylan tribute at Durban’s Rhumbelow Theatre. Kudus, too, to Durban’s excellent Rusty Red, who also made a big impression with showband entertainment with his Eric Clapton tribute and various guest appearances with The Black Lapels.
Lowlights of the year included the deaths of Durban theatre stalwart Themi Venturas, Durban musician and show producer Stuart Mey; and Durban comedian-singer Fernando Lamy.
The fiasco that was the sudden cancellation of the much-publicised, touring Splash water circus from Russia was also a bad memory; as was the fact that insufficient local productions in Durban this year led to the annual Durban Theatre Awards being postponed. They will now be presented every two years. Sad.
Here’s to a great year in theatre in 2018!