Barking mad KickStArt comedy

A scene from A R Gurney’s Sylvia. This KickstArt production stars (from left), Greg King, Liesl Coppin, Cara Roberts and Bryan Hiles.

STAGE: Sylvia – Seabrooke’s Theatre, Durban High School

A PERKY pooch that converses with her owners – a pet depicted by an actress with a ‘shaggy dog’ haircut, in a collar-like necklace and a fake-fur top above an exposed midriff, scruffy denim shorts and furry kneepads.

That description of the title character in Sylvia, the latest production from Durban’s treasured KickstArt theatre company, might suggest it is aimed squarely at children. Instead – and spread the word far and wide – this is a delightful, robust and increasingly quirky comedy, flecked with surprises, about a mischievous mutt poised to gnaw a hole in the 20-year marriage of the couple that adopt her.

The cute canine is energetically portrayed – with assorted quirks and a chuckle-inducing ‘Hey! Hey!” as a substitute for barks – by the ever-ebullient Cara Roberts, fresh from her success in the award-winning The King of Broken Things. Ever-dependable Bryan Hiles is the amiable Greg, the middleaged man, unhappy with his job and life in general, who finds new zest when he finds Sylvia in a park and takes her home and into his heart.

Liesl Coppin is perfect as Greg’s harassed English-teacher wife, Kate, constantly offering brief Shakespearean quotes to pass comment on the way her life is unfolding. With her and Greg’s kids long having flown the nest, and all pets with them, Kate is not enamoured with the idea of “Saliva’, as she calls the canine, dominating her home.

Slowly elbowed into tolerating Sylvia for a few days before she makes any final decisions, Kate then finds her living-room, and her marriage, slowly showing signs of going to hell. She also starts to doubt Greg’s sanity…

Cara Roberts and Bryan Hiles in Sylvia, co-directed by Greg King and Peter Court.

Sylvia is co-directed with a keen sense of fun by Peter Court and Greg King, and it is interesting to note that it marks the return to acting of KickstArt’s founder and award-winning set and costume designer King, who has not tread the boards in yonks.

He is a hoot in three very showy roles, all of them characters who interact with and proffer advice, sought or not, to Sylvia’s owners. They are Phyllis, a kugel friend of Kate, who has to suffer an amorous assault from Sylvia; a gender-ambiguous therapist called Leslie; and Tom, a macho, fellow dog-owner who has some weird views on life and whose dog, Bowzer, tends to whip Sylvia into a sexual frenzy.

By turns highly amusing and increasingly poignant, the play has been given a Durban setting by KickstArt. Originally set in New York, it is among the most popular plays from US playwright and academic A R Gurney, whose successes include The Dining Room, Sweet Sue, The Cocktail Hour and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Love Letters.

Sylvia was first staged off-Broadway in 1995 (with Sarah Jessica Parker starring) and revived for Broadway in 2015 (When Parker’s husband, Matthew Broderick, was among the cast).

The KickstArt production marks the team’s first in seven months and opens amid the sad news that the company’s annual pantomime has had to be cancelled this year because the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, which accommodates it annually, will be shut until early in the new year.

For a number of reasons, Sylvia is a perfect choice for KickstArt as its first production in times of Covid-19 lockdown – and not only because it has some barking mad humour when we most need it, but because it features a small cast when budgeting is tight. Furthermore, King’s customarily detailed and clever set fits quite comfortably on to the small stage; and the intimacy of the small theatre, where only 50 people can currently be seated under lockdown conditions, works like a charm.

Cara Roberts and Liesl Coppin square off in Sylvia.

Sylvia is the first production in the newly refurbished Seabrooke’s Theatre, which now boasts a brighter and more welcoming foyer and a deftly spruced-up auditorium. I am told it is being marked for a steady flow of professional plays, so a big “yay” for that!

The play is charming, it’s sweet, it has a number of surprise moments – not least cast members breaking into song, performing Every Time We Say Goodbye – and, at its soft underbelly, has a quiet lesson or two about connecting, coping and midlife crisis.

I lapped it up, and judging by the abundance of laughter and wide smiles from those around me, it is set to be a winner. Word seems to be spreading too, because demand is such that an extra weekend of performances has been added.

The show, lit by Michael Taylor-Broderick, is presented only at 7pm on Fridays, 2.30pm and 7pm on Saturdays, and 11am and 3pm on Sundays, until November 8. Tickets cost R150 throughout (unreserved seating) and booking is at Computicket. Note that Covid-19 lockdown protocols need to be observed.

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