Diverse mix of Joburg theatre

A scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jnr – at Johannesburg’s Peoples Theatre until December 22.

BILLY SUTER took a drive to Johannesburg to review three diverse stage productions – Gertrude Stein and a Companion (which has just ended its run at Sandton’s Theatre on the Square), The Snow Goose (at Pieter Toerien’s Studio Theatre at Montecasino, until November 24) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr (at the Peoples Theatre at the Joburg Theatre complex, until December 22).

IT IS always fun to take a drive from home base Durban to Johannesburg to sample the theatre scene there, and this past weekend proved no exception, all three of the diverse productions I saw proving worthwhile.

Best of the bunch was the excellent Gertrude Stein and a Companion, an hour-long drama by Win Wells, although the enchanting The Snow Goose, which has been doing the South African circuit for years, and which I have somehow always missed, ran a very close second.

The third production I saw, marking my first visit to the quaint Peoples Theatre in the Joburg Theatre complex, was a sweet, colourful, small-scale version of the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, titled Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr, which is a jolly romp designed for little ones and the perennially young at heart.

I was totally immersed in Gertrude Stein and a Companion which I saw on the final day of its run at Daphne Kuhn’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square. It opened on October 20 and ran until November 16.

Shirley Johnston (right), as modernist writer and poet Stein, and Lynita Crofford as Alice B Toklas in Gertrude Stein and a Companion.

Performances by Shirley Johnston, as modernist writer and poet Stein, and Lynita Crofford, as Stein’s longtime companion Alice B Toklas, are out of the top drawer, and it’s worth noting that, in May, Crofford took a Best Actress award for this role at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival.

Evocative, witty and a master class in fine acting, the play opens with the feisty Gertrude appearing as a ghost in the living room of her Paris home, following  her funeral, to reflect on the extraordinary relationship she had with Alice. We then have the much more serious Alice appearing, long-faced and still in mourning clothes, to chat to and about her lover. Alice is dour and acerbic; Gertrude generally warm and playful.

The audience gets to learn not only about the ups, downs and idiosyncracies of their long relationship (the lesbian connection is understated), but also their relationships with famous folk such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemmingway; Gertrude’s family friction; the women’s combined efforts to get Gertrude’s works published; and the couple’s rejection of the conservative values of middle-class Americans in the early 1900s.

The play is engrossing, covering commitment, loyalty, trust, loneliness, companionship and love.  If you ever get the chance to catch it should it come on circuit again, jump to it, because it makes for truly spellbinding theatre seeing these exemplary talents under the careful direction of Chris Weare.

Moving on to The Snow Goose… hearty back-slaps for Contagious Theatre, a fabulous production company consisting of critically acclaimed theatre makers, Jenine Collocott, James Cairns and Taryn Bennett, who work alongside long-time Fringe producers Simon and Helen Cooper.

They all have had acclaimed independent fringe theatre staged in Europe, America, the UK and Australia, and have given us such delights as Making Mandela, El Blanco (Tales of the Mariachi), The Devil and Billy Markham and the nutty and inspired Silkworm, all of which I have seen and loved at the Hilton Arts Festival.

Taryn Bennett is excellent in The Snow Goose. Catch it in Johannesburg until Sunday, November 24.

One of the group’s most celebrated works, however, remains The Snow Goose, which has long toured countrywide, scoring both critical and commercial acclaim. It received Naledi Award nominations for best play, ensemble and director in 2016, the same year it was nominated for a Fleur du Cap Award for production design.

I loved this two-hander production which, based on the classic 1940 novel by Paul Gallico, but also featuring scenes and characters not in the book, is to be seen at the Pieter Toerien Studio Theatre at Montecasino only until this Sunday, November 24.

The play is imaginatively directed by Jenine Collocott (Sunday Morning, Dirt and High Diving). It unfolds on a stage dominated by a dozen slatted wooden boxes, which, during the course of the next hour or so (there is no interval), are rearranged in varying combinations to depict anything from a boat to a BBC recording studio, a lighthouse interior and a post office in damp, late-1930s Essex.

Versatile Cairns and the beguiling Bennett – who was a dizzy delight in the zany Silkworm – effortlessly morph between moods, genders and mannerisms as they don extraordinary masks and make quick costume changes to become various characters.

These characters criss-cross in the warm, increasingly poignant, war-time tale of a young girl, Fritha, who befriends an enigmatic, handicapped recluse, Phillip, who lives in an abandoned lighthouse in the Essex marshlands.

The friendship starts when the girl rescues a snow goose and requests Philip help nurse it back to life… but their idyllic world goes topsy-turvy when the chaos of war starts to intrude.

Offering fun use of Andrews Sisters songs and clever prop manipulations, The Snow Goose is pure enchantment and should not be missed.

Final performances are at 8pm nightly until Friday, then at 4pm and 8pm on Saturday, and 3pm on Sunday. Tickets range in price from R130 to R180 and are available at Computicket or the Pieter Toerien Theatre box-office at (011) 511 1818.

Moving on to the Peoples Theatre… Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr , the latest family show at this wonderful little spot, is based on the 1968 movie musical that starred Dick van Dyke as the whacko inventor of a colourful car that made the sounds of the show title and could both fly and float.

This production is nowhere near as lavish as the big-budget London Palladium production I saw some 10 years or more ago, but neither does this “junior” version pretend to be.

With a much more modest budget, it manages to still retain the essence of the movie’s charm and appeal. It features all the popular songs created by the Sherman Brothers (who also wrote songs for Disney’s The Jungle Book and Mary Poppins) and features a zealous cast of children, newcomers and established professionals in various roles, some of them in multiple roles.

Originally a book by James Bond author Ian Fleming, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jr tells of the giddy adventures of eccentric inventor, Caractacus Potts, who sets about restoring an old race car from a scrap heap with the help of his children, Jeremy and Jemima.

Joelle Rochecouste and Matthew Otto in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Jnr.

Caractacus is played with confidence and panache by Mondé Sibisi, who was seen in Durban, as a 15-year-old actor, in the 2006 Young Performers’ production of The Wiz. He is a fun Caractacus, with a commendable singing voice, albeit that he appears far too young and sometimes overly camp to play a father of two children only a few years away from their teens.

Caractacus and his kids – as well as romantic interest Truly Scrumptious (a sweet but, curiously, seemingly underused Caroline Borole, star of the touring Tina – Simply the Best) and Grandpa Potts (seasoned and versatile performer Luciano Zuppa) – soon discover the car has magical properties.

However, trouble occurs when the evil Baron Bomburst of Bulgaria (tall and amusing newcomer Matthew Otto), and his whacky wife (an ebullient Joelle Rochecouste), desire the magic car for themselves.

The family and friends have to unite to outwit the dastardly Baron and Baroness, two bumbling spies and a villainous henchman, the Child Catcher.

Some simple, but clever, design and dynamics come into play to create the flying car, while windmills, a sweet factory, a dark undergound labyrinth, the sea and clouds, and a night sky during the Hushabye Mountain lullaby are well depicted with minimal props or back projection.

I would have liked more audience participation – the youngies love that! – but this remains a truly scrumptious treat for the festive season, directed with good use of the wide stage by Jill Girard and Keith Smith.

The show has musical direction by Coenraad Rall, musical staging by Sandy (Dyer) Richardson, set and lighting design by Grant Knottenbelt and costumes by Merry Whillier and Sean McGrath.

The season runs until Sunday, December 22. Performance times are Mondays to Friday at 9am and 11am, Saturdays at 10.30am and 2.30pm, as well as all Sundays and public holidays.

Tickets cost R140 (R100 for members of the Peoples Theatre Kids Club (you can become a member for R120 membership fee – contact Peoples Theatre on 011 403 1563/ 2340 for more information).

To book tickets call Sean or Beth on (011) 403 1563 / 2340 or email the theatre at info@peoplestheatre.co.za.

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