Stage: Charlotte’s Web – Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Durban
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
CLEVER use of puppetry and inspired design have always been strong trademarks of Durban’s award-winning Greg King, former puppet master of the Playhouse Company and longtime co-owner, with Steven Stead, of KwaZulu-Natal’s precious KickstArt theatre company.
Little wonder, then, that this uber-talent uses both skills to weave magic in his design and direction of KickstArt’s latest bumper treat for the young of all ages.
E B White’s Charlotte’s Web is a classic children’s story with wonderful life lessons about the importance of good friendship, kindness, loyalty and love. It has been a favourite of King’s since he was very young, he writes in programme notes.
His love for the tale certainly shines through in his stage production which, adapted from White’s story by Joseph Robinette, follows KickstArt’s King-directed earlier successes for the young, The BFG and James and the Giant Peach.
Charlotte’s Web is a truly delightful slice of theatre that spurred a spontaneous standing ovation on opening night, on Friday, and seems set for a successful run.
The charm is not only in the story but fine performances by a versatile cast that sees most actors in a number of roles, none more so than Lyle Buxton and Bryan Hiles, both excellent.
Buxton first appears as a no-nonsense farmer, John Arable. He then ping-pongs between playing an amusing gander with a habit for saying words in triplicate; an aw-shucks farmhand called Lurvy; a reporter; and, in a scene-stealing cameo spot, a farm festival official with a look, mannerisms, a sense of self-importance and an embarrassing hairstyle that nod to Donald Trump.
Hiles is equally versatile and good value, appearing first as a mischievous young farmboy and going on to portray a reporter, a camp festival judge and, best of the lot, a cocky, conniving and comical Templeton the Rat, a large puppet that Hiles voices and helps to manipulate.
The bedraggled, hyperactive Templeton is one of a menagerie of barn residents that become friends with runt piglet Wilbur (portrayed first as puppets then, endearingly, and in a pink outfit, by Mthokozisi Zulu, who played Buttons in last year’s Kickstart panto, Cinderella).
Other pals of the pig include goose Gussie (played by Cara Roberts, who doubles as Fern, a little girl who rescues the young Wilbur to become her pet and, in later months, her pal) and The Old Sheep, played by jovial Teboho ‘T-Bone’ Hlahlane, who also portrays amiable Farmer Zuckerman and a vain, large, rock star of a pig called Uncle.
Wilbur’s best friend, however, is the spider of the show title, very cleverly depicted by a beguiling Belinda Henwood, using her crossed hands as the spider’s legs and body. It is Charlotte who, to help save Wilbur from being fattened up for slaughter, spins a plan to turn him into a celebrity… and all the mystery of her mission lies in her web.
Completing the cast are Erina Rautenbach and Stephanie Jenkins, who portray farmhands and puppeteers. They bring to life everything from ducklings to birds and butterflies, and also help a lot with the puppeteering of principal characters.
King, his backdrops as detailed and dazzling as one has come to expect, moves the action from farm barns to a colourful festival fair, complete with a fireworks display, and has some genius moments of creativity.
Charlotte’s centrally placed barn web sparkles with shimmery, silver sequins and sprays of lighting to create much of the story’s magic, while the Wendy Henstock-created puppets – in particular Templeton and the geese – are beautifully realised.
Charlotte’s Web features lighting design by Tina le Roux, costumes created by Shanthi Naidoo, music direction by Jason Bird and sound engineering by Ross van Wyk.
An excellent choice for a family outing during the holidays, the show has only morning and matinee performances (varying daily) until July 7. Tickets, available at Computicket outlets, range in price from R120 to R180 (R100 to R160 for children pensioners and students).
Round up some kids and go, go, go!