Theatre Review: Île – Family Takes Atoll, Or Physically Funny

April 4, 2024




Île / Directed by Rob Van Vuuren / Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg


In an energetic autobiographical mish-mash of storytelling, physical comedy and gags about bodily functions, Cape Town performer Sophie Joans completely commits to her craft. The opening scene of Île – the play’s name comes from the French name for Mauritius, Île de Maurice, from which many members of Joans’ family can trace their lineage – sees her describing the formation (in geological terms) of the volcanic island, using her body to underline the explosive nature of lava and the evolution of lost pigeon to dodo, among much else. It’s such sincere artistic expression that it makes the audience feel almost uncomfortable (and full of respect); a level of simultaneously vulnerability and self-awareness that not many people are capable of.

Given that high bar set up front, some of the progress of the piece feels less impactful, relatively speaking. Joans doesn’t use her considerable physical comedy skills consistently throughout, and the pure storytelling elements are otherwise aided only by a couple of boxes moved around to signify a bed or a car or, in one instance, a furnace. Different parts of the script feature tar-black humour, anecdotes about weird maternal behaviour and musings about how and why she (and people in general) has turned out the way she has, all of which are interesting aspects of the story. But there isn’t ­– ironically, given her performance intensity – a full commitment to any one of these particular elements (in other words, the show is not as deliciously dark as it could be, or as gloriously offbeat as it might be, or as moving as it has the potential to be). It all hangs together well enough, but there is a sense that a more coherent overall identity might give it more punch.

All of this said, the show has achieved considerable success in a number of arenas, and a performance like this will always benefit from an audience energy that goes some way to equalling Joans’ vigour. And in the performance under review, that was – for no reason other than that one group of people out in the stalls differs from another on a different night – not the case, with Joans actually pausing after one rather rude gag, met with a couple of sniggers, to say, “That one’s usually hilarious!”.

Whatever the scenario during a given performance, though, Joans is a charming, engaging and clearly talented presence on stage.