101 ways with a bench…

Ameera Patel and Jacques da Silva in the captivating Whistle Stop, which has final performances at Durban’s Playhouse Loft this weekend.

Stage: Whistle Stop – Playhouse Loft, Durban
(Final performances at 3pm and 7.30pm today (Saturday, May 26) and 3pm tomorrow (Sunday, May 27)

PRESENTED as part of the Playhouse Company’s annual New Stages festival, Whistle Stop could just as easily have been titled 101 Ways with a Bench, so integral to the unfolding action does the white metal structure, the sole prop on stage, become to this widely acclaimed piece of theatre.

Imaginatively directed by Frances Slabolepszy, the hour-long play, presented against a simple black curtain and staged without an interval, was written by Ameera Patel, who also stars in it alongside her real-life partner, Jacques da Silva.

Both performers featured strongly in Scorched, the flagship show of last August’s Women’s Arts Festival at the Playhouse. That harrowing and memorable production saw Patel take the Naledi Award for best supporting actress, and the riveting drama also took Naledis for Jade Bowers’s direction and Ilse Klink’s stellar lead performance.

Real-life couple Jacques da Silva and Ameera Patel in Whistle Stop.

Together, and under the meticulous and inspired guidance of Slabolepszy, Patel and Da Silva weave a beguiling piece about the highs and lows of a relationship, centring the action on a man and woman who meet at a park bench, igniting a mutual attraction and sparking thoughts from each of them of possible results of that connection over time.

Speaking to each other and also blurting out their thoughts to the audience, the actors provide much rapid-fire dialogue, coupling it with sometimes outrageous, often hugely effective, physical contortions around, on, under, above and in between that bench. One moment the structure acts as a four-poster bed attracting nightmare tentacles in a dream sequence; then it becomes a wall, then something to lie under. I particularly  liked the sequences suggesting aerial views of the couple.

As they assume their changing positions, so the actors, by turns, chat to each other and individually ponder aloud about a longer term future for the relationship.

The performances are top-notch, Da Silva being particularly striking in his zeal and agility as the pair fuel a rollercoasting, fascinating,  journey through past, present and future relationship dilemmas.

The work, conceived as a tribute to the work of legendary British playwright-actor Steven Berkoff, received a Standard Bank Silver Ovation Award in Grahamstown in 2014, with Patel garnering a special writers’ award.

“I think, in the way that all theatre works, the script is the jumping-off point, an important aspect, but nothing without the magic of relationship on stage,” Patel has said.

“Jacques’s physical intuition and Francis’s careful balancing of the entire piece, were as essential in creating this piece as the writing was,” she added.

“I wanted to explore archetypal relationships, which dip in and out of specificity. This meant that it was easier to write about a distanced couple as opposed to my personal encounters.”

The production, seen earlier this week at the Playhouse Loft by school audiences, has toured nationally with much success.

Final performances in the Loft are at 3pm and 7.30pm today (Saturday, May 25) and 3pm tomorrow (Sunday, May 27). Tickets are priced from R100 to R150. Booking is at Computicket outlets.

Ameera Patel and Jacques da Silva in the captivating Whistle Stop, which has final performances at Durban’s Playhouse Loft this weekend.

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