By BRUCE DENNILL
Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical / Directed by Shelley Adriaanzen / Redhill School 7.5
There’s nothing terribly complex about Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, other than, after millennia in which we as a species have made the same mistakes as most of the characters involved, we still need a theatre production to help point out the folly of our ways.
Featuring just four actors, Polkadots is a brightly coloured fable that looks incredibly sweet and yet, for audience members sensitive to the overarching themes, has an unexpected bite.
Gugu Dhlamini is Lily Polkadot, an out-of-towner with pink hair and dots on her skin who is starting at a new school, in a class of only blue-haired kids with squares on their skin, and a teacher from the same mould. Lily is a confident, grounded individual, but as she finds her feet in her new context, even she is still prone to moments of doubt and loneliness.
In her class are brother and sister Sky (Bonginkosi “Jay” Hlatshwayo) and Penelope (Kirsty Marillier) Square, the latter a bully who demands that everything be done her way and the latter generally too nervous to challenge his sibling. Andrea Shine completes the cast as teacher Mrs Square (caring, but reverting to the status quo under pressure) and the siblings’ mother Mama Square (a more superficial person, concerned only with her family).
Using these building blocks, the piece is successful in two ways. In keeping things uncomplicated – from the clever, unfussy set and props to the guileless dialogue – it ensures that its primary audience (young children, perhaps up to tweens) are able to fully engage with the story. And in allowing the casual cruelty of the playground, classroom and dinner table to seep in between the smiles and the cuteness, it refuses to ignore the realities faced by outsiders everywhere. In that latter space, there are moments that will – or should – make sensitive audience members wince: onstage, Lily handles herself with elan, but the same sentiments expressed at a school could play a role in ruining a child’s sense of self.
All four cast members do the company proud: Dhlamini has a fine voice, likely to be a feature of many future musicals; Hlatshwayo adds a sort of emotional buoyancy to the whole show; Marillier makes it easy to dislike her character while also coolly handling some of the stronger comic moments; and Shine combines her characters’ shortfalls with a chirpy, happy energy that brings smile to your face.
A fine, compact production with an ageless message. Hopefully it will be able to tour widely and function as an upbeat introduction to musicals for young audiences.