Theatre Review: The Trolley Dollies – The Triplets Of Belville, Or (Very) Tall Tales Told Tartly

August 31, 2022



The Trolley Dollies: The Triplets Of Belville / Produced by Deviant Theatricals / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg


There is much that is unexpected about this three-hander. For one thing, it’s a drag show staged in a mainstream theatre, which even in this progressive age is still the exception to the rule. For another, it’s a drag show where the narrative leans toward the melancholy and thought-provoking at least as much as the more anticipated cattiness and improvised quipping. And for another – and this is both brave and weirdly meta – it features three real-life actors as three real-life, well-known drag queens who were partners in a real-life Cape Town theatre space playing out a scripted version of a real-life relationship breakdown. It’s a set-up that requires an enormous amount of vulnerability, which, once you realise what is happening onstage, is affecting in a way that makes the layers of make-up, the giraffe lashes and the arresting length of Christopher Dudgeon’s (as Holly) skirt fade into the background. Inasmuch as anything involving three lock-forward-sized men in audacious outfits can be anything less than lurid…

Dudgeon, Rudi Jansen (as Molly) and Brendan Van Rhyn as Cathy Specific, the best-known personality of the lot – that’s a thread that comes up regularly – are all talented performers, each with clearly defined individual personae. They also have a shared performance history that ensures their awareness of each other’s performance tics and the ability to collectively focus on a desired dramatic or comic outcome. In the light of all of that, it’s surprising that there are one or two moments that lack a little polish, where pauses in dialogue are just a touch too long and the expected fizz these characters are known to generate is not quite there. That’s a minor quibble, however, and one that’s perhaps understandable knowing that the Pieter Toerien Theatre stage is much larger than the average drag venue platform, so the blocking is altered; and also that this is a fully scripted show, rather than a story allowing for frequent ad-libbing. When there is a mild meander off-script, it tends to work really well, ironically, as the performers’ effortless edginess is made more evident than much of the script allows.

Van Rhyn/Cathy is brash, proud and arrogant. Jansen/Molly does her best to keep or restore the peace. And Dudgeon/Holly is caustic to the point of belligerence. But for all the angst and aggression, the trio make sweet music (literally and metaphorically) when they come together. The musical aspect of the piece involves appropriating numbers from Chicago, Les Miserables and a number of other famous productions and either adapting the lyrics thematically (the Cell Block Tango murderesses would blush at this version) or placing them straight into the narrative – whatever is most appropriate for that scene. The arrangements are strong and agreeably complex, showing real singing talent and a deep appreciation for musical theatre in the more traditional sense.

Some audience members may not relate to some of the subject matter, particularly in Johannesburg (Gate69, the venue the trio owned, performed in together and reference in much of this story, was in Cape Town), but however invested you are in South African theatre – of any kind – The Trolley Dollies: The Triplets Of Belville provides a wistful reminder of the sacrifice involved behind the scenes, and the value of what is put on stage. And for that alone, it deserves applause.