BILLY SUTER spent the weekend in Johannesburg to see two shows many are talking about – the first South African production of the record-breaking Agatha Christie play, The Mousetrap, and the large-scale Marc Lottering musical, Aunty Merle The Musical which, after four Fleur du Cap Award nominations, is now in Gauteng following three seasons in Cape Town.
HAVING opened on London’s West End in 1952 and played continuously ever since, it seemed a must for me, a theatre fan who had never seen Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, to take the drive from my Durban hometown to Johannesburg to catch the legendary whodunnit at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino.
I mean, for heaven’s sakes, the play has been running four years longer than I have been alive, so it would have been criminal not to have seen it locally, right?
The first South African production of the famous murder-mystery was great fun, but my trip to Gauteng was made much, much more rewarding for my having attended the Marc Lottering musical, Aunty Merle The Musical, at the Nelson Mandela Theatre at the Joburg Theatre complex.
Having enjoyed three seasons in Cape Town, Aunty Merle the Musical is a polished, world-class production, a delight from start to finish. It is laden with heart and soul, offers 21 fine original songs (by Lottering and Tarryn Lamb) which range from power ballads to catchy toe-tappers, and features an excellent 14-member cast and an eight-member, on-stage band.
Performances all round are excellent, but none better than the hilarious Lottering in the title role.
But first The Mousetrap, a play that started life as a short radio play called Three Blind Mice, which was first broadcast in May 1947. The title was changed when it was adapted for London’s West End because there had already been a fairly recent play under that title.
Seemingly as much a must-do in London as a visit to Big Ben and the Tower of London, the play may creak a little but, played straight without any campness, it emerges as a good melding of murder and mystery with incidental comedy.
In brief, it tells of a group of strangers who find their lives in danger while trapped in a guesthouse during a bad snow storm and with the phone out of order.
A young detective arrives (he manages to ski in) to announce to all at the guesthouse that someone there is a murderer, while two others may be potential victims. The murderer, we gradually discover, is out to seek revenge for a former incident involving abuse of foster children on a farm.
To say any more would spoil the fun and intrigue. Suffice it to say that, as with all Agatha Christie stories, the plot thickens, as it is slowly revealed there may be reasons for each of the diverse strangers to be a killer or a victim.
All have skeletons in the cupboard. All appear more than a little suspicious. They include a hyperactive and effete man, a querulous former magistrate, an aloof and masculine woman, an enigmatic retired army officer, the married guesthouse owners and a mysterious man with an odd accent and face make-up that suggests he is trying to appear older than he is.
The last-mentioned character is one Mr Paravicini, who arrives at the guesthouse claiming his car has broken down, and he is played by former 1960s British pop star Mark Wynter, who has appeared in many musicals in London, including Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Sweet Charity.
Also in the South African production are Malcolm Terrey, Aidan Scott, Shannyn Fourie, Michele Maxwell, Matthew Lotter, Mark Sykes and Melissa Haiden.
It has long remained a tradition, during final bows in The Mousetrap, for the audience to be asked by a cast member not to reveal the name of the murderer once the curtain drops, so as not to ruin the fun for future patrons, and this tradition continues with the South African production.
The Mousetrap is directed by Jonathan Tafler. It runs at the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino until March 3. Performances are Wednesdays to Sundays and ticket prices range from R100 to R240. Booking is at Computicket outlets.
And so back to Aunty Merle The Musical… what a vibrant, feel-good show which, set in 2019 and through comedy, fine performances and the slick, inspired direction of Lara Foot, serves fun while also very deftly touching on issues of racism, gender and exploitation.
It’s a truly fabulous show with Lottering a constant scream as the feisty, funny and slightly bitchy Aunty Merle of Belgravia Road in Athlone – a character that has long been a stand-up favourite of the Afro-haired comic, whose silver-streaked mop is hidden under scarves throughout this show.
The musical gets to introduce characters Aunty Merle has been talking about, through Lottering, for years – among them her husband Dennis (a charming Royston Stoffels), daughter Abigail (powerful voiced Tracey-Lee Oliver), longtime domestic helper and pal Lydia (a standout Tankiso Mamabolo, who has a stunning voice) and various friends and neighbours.
On a stage with the band to one side, and on the other a clever set showing a kitchen and lounge, and above that a bedroom, the production tells of Aunty Merle anticipating the wedding of her daughter. Abigail is to tie the knot with Alan, a white boy from Bantry Bay, played by Stephen Jubber and Alastair-Moulton Black for the earlier Cape Town seasons, and now by award-winning Paul du Toit.
How Merle and her family and friends deal with wedding plans and assorted distractions pulls the focus of a show which also turns a spotlight on Abigail’s cocky, disgruntled former boyfriend (a confident Loukmaan Adams), who harbours a secret about her.
Also among those in the mix are Lydia’s unseen philandering husband and her angry student daughter Nambitha (a spunky Zandile Madliwa); Merle’s neat, Beyonce-loving student son Carl (Anzio September) and his very close friend Siya (Sizwesandile Mnisi); and the colourful Soraya (Carmen Maarman), Merle’s nosey neighbour for 17 years. Also featured are a fun Gina Schmukler and Adrian Galley as Alan’s parents.
The show has a terrific soundtrack – I particularly loved the heartfelt Someone Else and the catchy Always a Lekker Story and The Way to His Heart is Through Your Tart -and there is much in the show to bring a smile to your face.
Director Foot notes of Lottering in the show programme: “His career reveals a profound comic genius, and an insightful social commentator with enormous pathos for our country, for people and for love and romance”. Certainly Aunty Merle The Musical encapsulates all that as well. I absolutely loved it and could easily sit through it again.
Aunty Merle The Musical, which has drawn standing ovations at most performances, features set design by Patrick Curtis, spirited choreography by Grant van Ster, lighting design by Mannie Manim and musical direction by Alistair Izobell.
It is booked in at the Joburg Theatre until March 3. Ticket prices range from R145 to R340 and booking is via WebTickets. See it!