By BRUCE DENNILL
Peter Pan: The Pantomime / Joburg Theatre / Directed by Janice Honeyman
JM Barrie wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at if he were to walk into the Joburg Theatre during the 2014 pantomime season.
For one thing Janice Honeyman’s script is riddled with sponsor mentions and product placements – easy to deal with for a South African audience aware of the budgetary constraints placed on producers, set designers and the rest of the team responsible for the lavishly staged work – but not the sort of thing you want to present to a new audience, coming to the venue for the first time.
The rest of the show, however, does for that audience what the sponsor’s cash does for the pantomime: allow it to exist at all.
Kids are a tough sell when it comes to theatre. They have computer games, multiple TV channels, the current school craze is and any number of other distractions to contend with and theatre requires sitting still for long periods, following some sort of behavioural etiquette model and following a convoluted storyline.
This production offers youngsters a multi-faceted experience, beginning before they even enter the auditorium. Towards the back of the programme are a couple of pages of puzzles and games, themed to reflect the plot – pirates; steering Peter Pan through the clouds and so on.
Later, there are the usual panto episodes – the chanting at the villain, the throwing of sweets into the audience, having characters walk down the aisles and chat directly to little ones in the stalls… and even a scratch-and-sniff panel designed to introduce a fourth dimension to proceedings.
This is not theatre as it is normally experienced, but kids don’t know that yet – and their perceptions shouldn’t be questioned unnecessarily. What happens in Peter Pan: The Pantomime is that children enjoy an experience that caters to all their senses (taste and touch if they catch and eat the sweets) filled with music and laughter, movement (the closing singalong has been replaced by a democratically chosen dance number) and colour.
Filtered through a child’s eyes, all of these combine to create joy, a two-old bonus. Firstly, having this emotion associated with theatre, however non-specifically, is priceless (particularly, but not exclusively) in an age when maintaining theatre audiences and growing new ones is a complex challenge. Secondly, any parent worth their salt will spend half of their time watching their offspring’s reaction to the show rather than what is going on on stage, and if that is the case, they’re going to have a better time than even the antics of the talented cast could deliver.
On that score, Michael Riff Themba (star quality in spades and lithe, fluid movement as Peter Pan); Bongi Mthombeni (vocal versatility and sustained energy as Smee), Joanna Abatzoglou (a glorious singing voice as Wendy), Weslee Swain Lauder (sass, songs and detached drollness as Clementina Coconut) and Craig Urbani (flashes of his true – stunning – talent in a performance, as Captain Hook, that never pushes him) deliver, as does a tight, animated band under the leadership of musical director Roelof Coelyn.
You’ll see more compelling stories often; perhaps every time you go to the theatre for the rest of the year. But you’re unlikely to find a formula – even in the adjoining People’s Theatre, which hosts productions tailored specifically for kids – that so effectively ignites an awareness of the way theatre delivers old-fashioned, impossible to understand magic.
Take your little ones, please. They, and the hopes of South African theatre to come, will benefit.