Theatre Review: Locked Upside Down – Stir Crazy Send-Up, Or Music To Mend By

February 11, 2022

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Locked Upside Down / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg


Having been part of the last production to run at Daphne Kuhn’s Theatre On The Square before the first COVID-19 lockdown, Loving You, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner and Lorri Strauss combine again for this production, the first to grace the stage in a hugely welcomed reopening of the venue. This time, they’re joined by pianist and singer Cathrine Hopkins for a piece that’s part comedy, part introspection, part musical and all therapy.

The therapy part applies to the audience, certainly, as the show is heartfelt, genuine and relatable, while still being light enough to provide easy escapism. But it also feels like – and this is an interesting and important observation to make as artists come out of period of professional and personal trauma – a kind of healing (or a part of it, at least) for the actresses involved. This may become a feature of a post-COVID theatrical landscape: casting aside both the set script structures prescribed for some sort of guarantee of success and notion that the needs of the audience must always come first, ahead of those of the performers and other theatre practitioners.

All that remains to be seen. In this show, the experiences being recalled and dramatised are drawn from a more specific niche: moms restricted to either their homes or nearby shops, and now permanently having to deal with their kids, without the benefit of the breaks provided by school or extra-murals. You don’t have to be a mother yourself to understand the extraordinary frustration felt by creative, social people with no work, no outlets for their talents and the unbroken fatigue of round-the-clock mothering, or to understand that what was considered eccentric or downright bonkers behaviour before lockdown became pretty mainstream and acceptable as the months passed.

As such, and hilariously, much of the script for Locked Upside Down is taken from actual experiences of the performers, particularly Spiegel-Wagner and Strauss, who are close friends and confidantes offstage. The challenges of, among other things, finding a place to get vaccinated; of keeping small, very vocal children occupied and home-schooled; of trying to keep those same kids feeling valued and loved; of shopping under strange and sometimes meaningless restrictions; and of trying to maintain their own sense of worth and their important friendships – all of these are explored in snappy, sketch-like scenes. Aiding the flow and adding considerably to the impact of the text are a number of songs, some cleverly combined in beautiful medleys. One featuring a mash-up of Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend and A Million Dreams from The Greatest Showman is especially brilliant, though another featuring Sondheim’s Children Will Listen runs it a close second.

Strauss – in real life the more conservative of the pair – plays the edgier role (the names of the characters have been changed to protect the relatively innocent), concocting cocktails to be sipped during Zoom meetings and running roughshod over the rules at major retailers. Spiegel-Wagner performance is fluid and natural – even when she goes rapturously over the top while briefly out in society on an errand, it’s easy to imagine seeing something similar from someone forced to hold back one every level in every other context. At the piano, accompanying her colleagues and adding her own voice on harmonies and in an elegant solo piece, Hopkins is a superb foil for the gags and barbs thrown around elsewhere, adopting a facial expression here or a barely noticeable reaction there (her little bottle of sanitiser gets a regular workout) that enriches the action.

There is plenty of humour and just as much self-deprecation – how ridiculous their behaviour often was was not lost on the performers – throughout the show. Happily, as it confirms their sensitivity and understanding of the real, brutal impact of the pandemic, there are also few moments where the energy dips and the clamour dies down, and there is a real sense of melancholy as the threat or pain of death (and its consequences) are recognised. A repurposing of Sara Bareilles’ sublime You Matter To Me allows Spiegel-Wagner and Strauss to both pay a meaningful tribute to those claimed by COVID and to continue the musical interlude thread of the production.

All of the above is marshalled and moulded by director Alan Swerdlow, who has given a barrage of standalone stories a structure and flow that makes it an accessible, understandable narrative.

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