BILLY SUTER looks back on his theatre-going year and selects some highs and lows. Of course, not being able to see every stage production during the year, keep in mind that choices here are strictly personal.
A MUSICAL about triumph over adversity, set in the American South, is my clear favourite for best musical of the year on the local theatre scene, a show I drove up to Johannesburg to see earlier in the year.
It is, of course, The Color Purple, which I caught at the Joburg Theatre in February – and a 2019 international tour of which is in the pipeline.
Make a note of the name Didintle Khunou. You are sure to be hearing a lot more of it on the strength of the powerhouse performance this relative newcomer gave in the lead role of the stage musical that everyone in South African theatre circles was talking about.
The Color Purple, as a movie, received 11 Academy Award nominations. Surprisingly, however, that 1985 Steven Spielberg film, inspired by the celebrated, darker, 1982 novel by Alice Walker, took not a single Oscar.
The drama, telling of the hardships and growth of Celie, a poor, abused woman in Georgia, America, between 1909 and 1949, first reached Broadway as a musical in 2005, ran there for three years, and scooped 11 Tony Award nominations in 2006, winning one for LaChanze as best actress.
The new, all-South African production, marking the first staging of this celebrated work in Africa, opened at the Joburg Theatre on January 31 and ended its season on March 4, before a return season in August.
Audiences were empowered, inspired and moved by this story of young Celie, who overcomes and eventually rises above her many adversities, through the help and support of three other women in her life.
It was a truly superb production, with an exceptionally strong cast and a set cleverly and beautifully designed by Sarah Roberts.
Johannesburg also offered my second favourite musical of the year: the excellent, super-sharp, touring Matilda The Musical, based on the film of the Roald Dahl story. It featured magical choreography, spunky performances and a terrific set in its tale of a bright little girl developing a special power to react to bigots and bullies.
My third favourite musical of 2018 was on home turf, Durban – the KickstArt theatre company’s truly excellent production of Camelot, with the show’s director, Steven Stead, outstanding in the role of King Arthur and a luminous Jessica Sole on tip-top form as Guinevere. I saw it twice!
Spots four and five on my Fave Musicals of the Year list respectively go to the Cape Town revival of West Side Story (the Johannesburg production was my top theatre choice for 2017), and the delightfully audacious Avenue Q in Johannesburg, a production with puppets, naughty humour and clever songs that was every bit as good as the London production I saw a decade ago.
My favourite drama of the year was the powerful Afrikaans play, Die Reuk van Appels, which I saw at the Hilton Arts Festival at Hilton College, in September. What a brilliant solo work performed by one of my favourite South African actors, Gideon Lombard, who wins my vote for Performance of the Year.
Johann Smith adapted the 1993 debut novel by South African author Mark Behr and, under the deft direction of Lara Bye, Lombard fully sinks his teeth into one of the most challenging roles of his career – that of a boy, the son of a traditional Afrikaner general, coming of age during the height of the apartheid years.
I also loved the recent Durban revival of Woza, Albert, directed by Christopher John and teaming the legendary Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa, co-creators and original performer of the slick protest theatre piece that remains as powerful today as it did when first staged in the 1980s.
Topics of racism, poverty and inequality – highlighted in the play via a number of everyday South African characters, all played by the hard-working Ngema and Mtwa – still, all these years later, blot South Africa’s progress, ensuring that Woza, Albert remains relevant, biting and thought-provoking.
A special mention must also go to Whistle Stop, which I saw at Durban’s Playhouse Loft in May. 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.
As usual, showband entertainment thrived in Durban and there was some good stuff around. It was also gratifying to see some noticeable shifts away from the norm to more theatrical presentations at the Kloof, Durban and Pietermaritzburg Rhumbelow Theatre franchises.
My three favourite showband entertainments this year came from versatile Durban band The Reals – Hot August Night: A Tribute to Neil Diamond, British Invasion (with Shaun Dragt as special guest) and the inspired Poetry in Music (with Samantha Landers and Colin Peddie as special guests).
In a more theatrical vein, An Evening With Jonathan Roxmouth emerged as my supper show pick of the year, followed closely by Samantha Peo’s revival of Soulfire and Fireflies.
What a privilege to have these fab talents on our doorstep, soon before both took principal roles for the international touring production of the sassy, sexy musical, Chicago, which reaches South African stages (not Durban, alas) in 2019.
An Evening With Jonathan Roxmouth and Soulfire and Fireflies, both slick and sophisticated cabarets, were staged at the Rhumbelow Theatre at Tina’s Hotel in Kloof, and both featured versatile Durban pianist Evan Roberts as accompanist.
The ubiquitous Roberts also happened to be the accompanist, at the same Kloof theatre, for my third favourite supper show of 2018 – That’s Life, a delicious mix of choice pop and show tunes, starring vocalists Shylo Periera and Samantha Landers.
That brings me to another face to watch: where has Shylo Pereira been hiding all these years? She has a great voice and I look forward to seeing a lot more of her on the local stage – starting with her, Landers and Roberts in a Carpenters tribute at the Rhumbelow Theatre early in the new year.
Another candidate for Newcomer of the Year, for me, was Dave Starke, who while not exactly a newcomer only truly made his presence felt in Durban in 2018, most notably with his elegant and excellent tribute to the music and memories of Leonard Cohen. The singer-guitarist’s James Taylor/Carole King tribute show was also hugely enjoyable. Both Starke’s shows played the Rhumbelow Theatre franchises.
Still on the subject of supper theatre… a very special mention must go to the flamboyant South Jersey Pom-Poms, fronted by accordion-playing Belinda Henwood, for their very entertaining, eponymous supper show. Think Vayo Con Dios with lashings of Fairground Attraction. Think generous dollops of gypsy influence with elements of swing, jazz, pop, novelty ditty and country. Then think circus, perhaps French animated movie soundtrack, perhaps Moulin Rouge, even Mad Hatter’s tea party… that was this show. Loved it!
Among other standout stage productions I enjoyed this year were Pieter-Dirk Uys’s When in Doubt, Say Darling (Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre), Fatal Attraction (Pieter Toerien Studio Theatre) and KickstArt’s second revival of the Steven Stead-penned panto, Cinderella (Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre).
Honourable mentions, too, for Marriage For Dummies (Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre), Gary Nixon and Rob Warren in A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen (Rhumbelow Theatre in Umbilo), Unhinged – Godfrey Johnson (Rhumbelow Theatre in Kloof), Get Knotted at the Rhumbelow Theatre in Umbilo, Bloopers at the Rhumbelow Theatre in Kloof, Dolphins by Starlight: Under African Skies (uShaka Marine World) and The Piano Greats: Rock n Roll Nerds (Rhumbelow Theatre in Kloof).
It was great to welcome back to Durban The Barnyard Theatre – newly opened, this month, at the neatly refurbished Suncoast Casino (I attend for the first time on December 22) – and also most heartening to report that the impressive, three-tier Sibaya Casino Rockwood Theatre, which opened in November last year, is going great guns under the wing of Durban’s Andrew Webster.
Standout shows I reviewed at the Durban Rockwood Theatre in 2018 were Jukebox Hits, Beautiful Noise, That ’80s Show and A Rocking World Tour, although my favourite there this year was Joseph Clark and band in The Music of Queen.
I also had great fun with leggy Cape drag legend Lilly Slaptsilli in Shenanigans (Rhumbelow Theatre in Kloof), Northcliff High School’s colourful Sister Act (Playhouse Drama), Nip/Tucked with The Trolley Dollies at the must-visit Gate 69 in Cape Town, and Betty Bangles in her unpretentious, lip-sync solo show, From Bloemfontein to Broadway, at Pretoria’s fun Beefcakes.
There weren’t many children’s plays around in Durban this year, but KickstArt’s The BFG, with Bryan Hiles in the title role, was a beautifully imaginative production by Greg King, and I am so looking forward to its return to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, by public demand, in 2019.
Special mention must be made of Mpilo ‘Straw’ Nzimande in Neil Coppen’s Grandpa Grump and the Magical Junk Shop (Umbilo Rhumbelow Theatre), which proved great fare for the young of all ages. Mpilo was also animated and amusing in this year’s mini naughty panto, Twice Upon a Mattress – The Story of the Princess and the P, at Durban’s Club Altitude.
As for negatives on the theatre scene in 2018 – a big lowlight in KwaZulu-Natal was the scrapping of the annual Durban Theatre Awards, presented for the past 15 years to recognise and reward theatre work in the city.
In late March, awards administrator Peter Taylor announced to members of the awards judging panel, this writer among them, that the awards had been axed with immediate effect following a decision taken at a meeting of the management committee.
Taylor explained that this was largely due to an increasing lack of productions in the city, and also a lack of support for the awards from the industry as a whole.
“We are aware that for several years now, certain sections of the industry have been very critical of the system, yet they have failed to engage constructively and have chosen rather to ignore the awards and have opted to not have their work considered,” he reported.
Approaches made to these critics had largely been rebuffed, he added. Very sad indeed.
I was also disappointed with The Play That Goes Wrong, an exhausting comedy which many found cheek-achingly hilarious but which left me wondering, with a wince, what the fuss was all about.
I did not enjoy the touring Pieter Toerien production of this comedy last year and, for all the good work of a hard-working Durban cast, did not enjoy the Durban production by KickstArt either.
Imaginatively directed by Steven Stead, and performed well enough by a talented cast that bravely took physical comedy to a new level, it sparked such loud and lavish hilarity on opening night in Durban that it spurred a quick and hearty standing ovation.
I am not a fan of the play.
My problem with the work – which centres on a fictitious, inept amateur dramatics company staging a tacky, country-house whodunnit in which absolutely everything goes wrong – is that it is way too fervent in its zeal, often clever in its execution but, for my liking, relentlessly corny and repetitive, and, ultimately, for me anyway, quite exhausting.
In both productions I have seen I found The Play That Goes Wrong too bombarding in its quest for laughs, too lacking in moments of lulls before lifts, and milking too many ideas too often. It also overstays its welcome.
Also among downers this year was news of the passing of legendary South African musician Hugh Masekela, who lost his battle with prostate cancer in January, and more recently, Hip Hop Pantsula (HHP), while this year the world also bid adieu to Deliverance star Burt Reynolds,
Another loss this year was American playwright Neil Simon, who died at the age of 91 on August 26 – 10 days after soul queen Aretha Franklin passed away at the age of 76.
Here’s to great theatre-going in 2019. See you in the foyer!