By BRUCE DENNILL
Puss In Boots / Directed by Steven Stead / Lyric Theatre, Gold Reef City, Johannesburg
For Johannesburg audiences, the pantomime has long been a once-a-year festive season family treat at the Joburg Theatre (and this year’s offering in that venue, Pinocchio, begins rehearsals soon). So it’s exciting for both fans of the genre and for the casts and crews of such shows that the scope is widening with another large-scale production – this time from Durban’s highly-regarded KickstArt Theatre.
The approach was always going to be significantly different (otherwise what point is there, really?) and once opening night audiences had made it past the sugary bounty in the foyer – generous goody bags for kids, packed with enough sugar to keep kids not only awake but hyped for what is a two hour-plus running time – the visual impact of this production was immediately evident.
Set designer Greg King has already racked up a handful of awards this year, and he delivers again with a bold Dayglo vision that brings an almost comic book sensibility (though on a vast scale) to the show. Enchanted grottoes are resplendent with enormous flowers, while the wicked ogre’s castle looks like something out of a Scooby Doo film. It’s an arresting approach that holds the audience’s attention, and is well complemented by Shanthi Naidoo’s equally dazzling costumes, painted in similarly broad strokes but featuring – particularly in the case of Mother Merry Marzipan’s layered gowns – inventive and diverting details.
Darren King – an experienced Dame – makes Merry one of the piece’s consistent highlights, with Zak Hendrikz, as Merry’s elder son Tristram, able to, through hilarious, carefully controlled physical mannerisms, make his character seem like a natural fit for the cartoon landscape (to the extent that he is, at one point, referred to in the script as “Johnny Bravo”).
Sean John Louw is a likeable focus as Merry’s youngest, Tom (the Dick Whittington equivalent for those familiar with the folk tales on which the story is based); Londiwe Dhlomo-Dlamini makes a striking Princess Miranda and Michael Richard, nearly unrecognisable behind prosthetics and make-up, is an effective villain. Ilse Klink as narrator and force for good Calypso Honeybunch is lovely as well, though the need for her Jamaican accent is questionable. Finally, Earl Gregory as the eponymous cat struts, preens and schemes commendably – he does, after all, have experience as a cat, having played Rum Tum Tugger in Cats to considerable acclaim.
For all of these strengths, though, the script never really fizzes consistently. King, as is fitting – the Dame deserves such privileges – has all the best lines, and while there are moments of splendid silliness, like the scene in which some pancakes are baked, the bulk of the writing plays better for children and perhaps teenagers than it does for adults.
This is of course no bad thing, as pantomimes are better options than most for introducing kids to the theatre, and Puss In Boots has a number of moments that set off rolling belly-laughs in the younger crowd.
Glossy, smooth and easy to digest, Puss In Boots sets a solid mark for future mid-year pantomimes. Here’s to expanded traditions and healthy competition.