By BRUCE DENNILL
Benny Bushwhacker / Directed by Janice Honeyman / Studio, Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Written by John van de Ruit – long-time friend and collaborator of Ben Voss (aka the title character in this one-man show) – this script deals, using quickfire gags and a number of characters, all played by Voss, with the serious matter of conservation and the impact of humans on the natural world. Clearly, that’s not a particularly funny topic, even if the likes of Donald Trump treat climate change as a joke.
But the subject can be addressed in an accessible, enjoyable way, and Voss succeeds in broadly stating his case – on behalf of the leopards both he and his character and admire and value, but also for wildlife in general. He’s a hugely appealing, genial performer, and in the intimate space of the Studio Theatre, his larger than life characterisations are infectious and relatable. Small physical tics – a trembling hand here; awkward fiddling with clothing there – and different voices, consistently maintained throughout, help to differentiate Bushwhacker as protagonist and narrator from his grandmother, his mildly maimed assistant and a couple of other commentators. There is also occasional interaction with members of the audience, with emphases in delivery adapted depending on the age or gender of the audience member meeting Voss’ eye.
Positive as all of this is, it must be said that while the material is engaging and amusing, it is not ever truly persuasive. Van de Ruit’s jokes recall the cleaner end of the classic British humour model, with plenty of clever wordplay and knowing asides. “Classic”, in this sense, can be understood to mean, “of another era”, and while extrapolating that to “dated” might be a little strong, it is true that there is not much in the way of real cut and thrust here. You’ll have a grin on your face for the bulk of the time Voss is on stage, but belly laughs are as rare as black rhinoceros sightings.
The conservation agenda is never so forcefully pushed that the piece feels preachy, but the comedy is never particularly wild either, so the combined impact of those threads isn’t quite what it might have been.