Theatre Review: A Marry Little Christmas – Humour Espoused, Or Inherited Intricacies

December 7, 2023

 

By BRUCE DENNILL

 

A Marry Little Christmas / Directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith / John Kani Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg

 

Seeing how a television sitcom is made – a three-sided set inhabited by an ever-evolving cast of characters, with the level of energy and pace influenced to some degree by the live audience on the other side of the fourth wall – underlines the influence of theatre on that genre. Curiously, Greg Homann’s farce-meets-recognisable experience comedy A Marry Little Christmas reverses that relationship, bringing onto the theatre stage a piece that feels somehow televisual, filled with recognizable faces (many of them TV regulars) and interactions that could just as easily translate on the small screen as they do on the boards.

Marry…, a project created by Homann as part of production company How Now Brown Cow’s The Writers’ Collective programme before he became Artistic Director of the Market Theatre, is frothy and fun, a notable step away from much of the material the venue is most famous for showcasing, which is rich in political content and activism. That feels like an intriguing step, with every theatre everywhere needing, in commercial terms at least, to continually diversify and expand its audience, and if this show succeeds in bringing fresh audiences over the Nelson Mandela Bridge it will be, for that reason alone, a great success.

The story takes place in the home of one Arnold Hartmann (Anthony Coleman), an anxious everyman whose plan to propose to his girlfriend Natalie (Kim Cloete) is scuppered at every turn by family arriving at different intervals for a big Christmas lunch, each with their own conscious or unconscious agenda. For theatre regulars or fans of mainstream South African television, the introduction of new characters keeps adding to the collective charisma on stage. There is Louise Saint-Claire as Arnold’s mother; Judy Ditchfield as her erstwhile best friend and now wife of Arnold’s father – James Borthwick. Arnold’s generation is rounded by his brother Gary (Roberto Pombo) and his partner Bandile (Zolani Shangasi), alongside Natalie’s wild-card sibling Donald (Trevor Lynch). Lynch makes the most of his character’s brashness to steal a number of scenes.

The script combines some pretty on-the-nose observations with more subtle takes on the relationships in what is a very dysfunctional blended family to be, taking in the dynamics of race, infidelity, sexual orientation, wokeness and marriage. In the case of the latter topic, there is a section examining the place of such an institution in world in which contemporary values and attitudes have, in many scenarios, replaced those held by previous generations. It feels a little out of step with the frenetic comedy – sometimes warm, sometimes awkward – of the bulk of the piece, but does also add a contemplative angle to the more direct gags and giggles.

Coleman’s empathetic reading of the hapless Arnold gives the play a warm heart and Pombo makes the pedantic Gary a sure source for acerbic commentary on everyone else’s perspectives. He is well balanced by Shangasi, both as a character and an actor using complementary body language.

The play’s Christmas theme means there may be room to revive it during the festive season either at the Market or elsewhere – another big-picture aspect that adds interest. And as it begins its journey , it offers pleasing holiday entertainment that’s a little too ribald for the whole family but will nevertheless have wide appeal.

 

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