By BRUCE DENNILL
The Snow Goose / Directed by Jenine Collocott / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
Paul Gallico’s famous story is, in quantitative terms, a mere slip of a thing; a few dozen pages detailing the experience of a young girl Essex named Fritha who bonds with Phillip Rhayader, a disabled recluse, over an injured bird they nurse back to health together in the early part of World War Two.
Make the story a script, though, and there’s opportunity for a layered, moving treatise on compassion, friendship and understanding. Sadly, the reason the story remains so powerful is that people will still find a reason – particularly in moments of stress – to turn on what (or who) they don’t understand, even if that that thing ultimately proves itself incredibly valuable.
Director Jenine Collocott and actors James Cairns and Taryn Bennett add some interesting facets to this production, including masks (phenomenally effective, even though some of them only cover a quarter or less of the actors’ faces) and enough physical theatre prowess to stretch two actors to at least half a dozen characters, all of them memorable.
Similarly compact is the clever set, which Cairns and Bennett continuously manipulate to evoke different buildings, as well as marshes, the English Channel, and boats.
James Cairns is arguably the best actor in South Africa at the moment, and his ability to transform into different personae is incredible without the aid of a mask. With those props, and a succession of sumptuous accents that recall everyone from Anthony Hopkins* to Winston Churchill, his performance makes you laugh and then cry (or try not to), depending on which role he’s inhabiting and how profoundly the spectre of war is looming at the time.
Taryn Bennett, a sparkling counterpoint to Cairns in his play Sie Weiss Alles – similar production values to this piece in that it was small and fairly plain to look at, with a devastating script, brilliantly acted – is equally good here. Her Fritha is the only child character, injected with exponentially more energy than most of the adults, bar and elderly postmistress who gets some of the loudest laughs for her antics, spiced as they are with varying doses of eccentricity and old-fashioned prejudice.
The pair’s onstage chemistry, the final piece in the puzzle, is predictably (they’re married) superb. All of this craft and warmth allied with a story with such emotional weight makes The Snow Goose a play that, given enough platforms on which to be performed, deserves to run for as long as the book it is based on has been on shelves.