Bright smile of a show! Lap it up!

A scene from A R Gurney’s Sylvia. This KickstArt production stars (from left), Greg King, Liesl Coppin, Cara Roberts and Bryan Hiles. The play is being presented in Durban, Thursdays to Sundays only, until November 14.

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

AFTER having been so impressed with KickstArt’s Sylvia when it first opened in Durban last October, I couldn’t wait for last night’s opening of the revival, with the same exemplary cast, of this warm, witty, often very funny, clever and also unexpectedly poignant tale of a perky pooch.

Sylvia is the name of the bundle of fluff that converses with her owners and is 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.

This description might suggest the play is aimed squarely at children. Instead – and spread the word far and wide – this is a delightful, robust and increasingly quirky comedy about a mischievous mutt poised to gnaw a hole in the 20-year marriage of the couple that adopt her.

The cute canine is once again energetically portrayed – with assorted quirks and a chuckle-inducing ‘Hey! Hey!” as a substitute for barks – by the ever-ebullient Cara Roberts, star of the award-winning Durban play, 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 amusingly 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 about keeping the canine, 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 King, KickstArt’s founder and award-winning set and costume designer, who, before KickstArt premiered Sylvia last year, had not tread the boards in yonks.

King is a hoot in three very showy, scene-stealing roles, all of them characters who interact with and proffer advice, sought or not, to Sylvia’s owners. They are animated 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).

For a number of reasons, Sylvia is a perfect choice for KickstArt 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 a limited number of people can currently be seated under lockdown conditions, works like a charm.

Cara Roberts and Liesl Coppin square off in Sylvia.

The play, making good incidental use of classic old songs to link scenes, is a real charmer and has a number of surprise moments – not least cast members breaking into song, performing Every Time We Say Goodbye. At its soft underbelly, it 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 once again set to be a winner.

The production, lit by Michael Taylor-Broderick, is being staged until November 14… only at 7pm on Thursdays and Fridays, 2.30pm and 7pm on Saturdays, and 2.30pm on Sundays. Tickets cost R175 throughout and booking is at Computicket. Note that Covid-19 lockdown protocols need to be observed.

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