By BRUCE DENNILL
Snow White: The Fairest Pantomime In The Land / Directed by Janice Honeyman / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, Johannesburg
People will go to pantomimes for as long as they’re staged. They’re family friendly and they come around at predictable times of year (often over school holidays), so they become very easy to schedule, becoming habits and then traditions. So it could be that those who stage pantomimes might settle into a routine; just rotate the standard themes, dress celebrities up in brightly-coloured costumes and stir in as many sponsors’ names as the script can stand.
Upping the ante is not simple, though. Mess with the formula too much and, while this year’s box office might not suffer too much, it’s possible that throwing a spanner in the works will cause the whole machine to splutter and possibly…stop.
The Joburg Theatre pantomime is probably the standard by which the genre is judged in South Africa, with the producer-director partnership of Bernard Jay and Janice Honeyman responsible for 18 productions together. Freshness – after all of the creativity expended over that time – could prove ever more elusive, you’d think. But the duo, along with a strong team of collaborators and an excellent cast have, in Snow White created, if not their best pantomimes together, then certainly one of the top two or three in their repertoire.
The set is a visual bombardment of the best sort, built – appearances would suggest – using a budget for glitter alone that comfortably exceeds the cost of entire productions elsewhere. The palace, the woods, the dwarves’ cottage – all of the familiar touchpoints in the classic fairytale – are all beautifully drawn, literally and figuratively, and there are ambitious add-ons in the form of a frozen pond (in the first act) and an extended 3D sequence in the second half. Happily, the 3D work is effective, not the awkward clunky stuff of some cinema efforts, and adds an exciting new dimension to the piece, though its impact might be too much for very young or especially sensitive.
Happily, the old-fashioned humans don’t need the help of technology to make this production work. As the title character, the incredibly talented Kiruna-Lind Devar gets the high-profile lead role she richly deserves, and though this, being a pantomime, doesn’t require the most intense acting work, Divar impresses with her singing, her dancing (ballet experience is obvious) and, perhaps just to rub it in, her ice skating as well (a quadruple threat!). In addition, she handled an unexpected wardrobe malfunction with unflappable calm.
As Snow White’s opposite number, Prince Chuck B Charming, Tshepo Ncokoane is also strong, with a rich singing voice and a stage manner that makes his character’s surname an accurate adjective. Desmond Dube, as narrator and general link character Dame Dolla Dludlu i’Diddledaddledoodle, is funny, sharp and just rude enough to engage the adults in the audience while sparing the kids’ blushes. And John Robbie cheerfully sets aside his relatively stern radio persona to give a playful, good-hearted reading of Norman Knockiknees, the Major Dumb-Ou.
However, as is often the case in a good pantomime, it is the villain who steals the show, and comedian, actor and writer Ben Voss raises the bar considerably as the aggressively nasty Queen Hildegonda Hurl-A-Lot. His delivery of some of the script’s best lines is machine-gun quick and often just as targeted, and his comic timing, honed by years of performance of his own work, is easily the best in show. Plus, he simply has a ball in the part, aided, no doubt, by the façade provided by his outrageous costumes, which enable the actor to vanish into the character and truly let loose.
The complex musical mash-ups are all well-performed, Nicol Sheraton’s choreography is stylishly adhered to, and the fairly low frequency of references to both sponsors and politics keeps the focus where it should be – on the story, and the considerable panache with which it is told. Snow White sets a new standard for these Joburg Theatre productions, and future audiences will be the beneficiaries of any efforts to maintain such a benchmark.