By BRUCE DENNILL
Just Carry On William! / Directed by Alan Swerdlow / The Studio, Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
On paper, the idea of bringing together Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories – about a bright, mischievous schoolboy who always manages to come out on top somehow – and recollections of the work of comedian Kenneth Williams, staple of the Carry On films, renowned voice actor and master of any number of entendres, seems an odd fit for the theatre stage, and in contemporary South Africa particularly.
But it works. Williams was an odd but talented bloke who recorded many of Crompton’s tales in the Eighties, and with his vocal versatility, was able to add fresh life to the Just William stories, the first collection of which was published in 1922. Director Alan Swerdlow and actor Malcolm Terrey have taken that context – Williams in an old-fashioned studio, replete with armchair, dusty cushions, out of date recording and noise making paraphernalia (including buckets of bolts for thunder) – and left the specific details of the settings in which William Brown and his friends get up to no good, as well as the appearance of the many characters with whom he interacts, up to the audience to imagine. As such, you will neither learn much about Williams nor about the backstory to any of the Just William tales, but you are presented with an entirely feasible set-up in which the best of both can be combined, and this elegantly understated platform plays an important part in helping to contain the agreeable pandemonium that ensues.
Terrey does superbly to corral all of the characters he is expected to play, with his only outside stimulus to begin with coming from the disembodied voice of an unseen studio producer. The piece comprises three separate, fairly long Just William tales, all requiring regular switches between adult and child characters, all needing different voices and facial expressions. It’s a feat of endurance and prodigious memory, and the few moments that aren’t perfectly delivered are planned that way, with Terrey improvising and interacting with the audience, occasionally allowing himself a non-character grin as he enjoys afresh the wit in a particular line or an unexpected response from someone a few rows back in the auditorium.
Ultimately, it’s not necessary to be familiar with either Williams’ or Crompton’s work, as the stories are so beautifully written, using such delicious language, that they are enjoyable from the first moment, and while Williams’ mannerisms and speech tics as embodied and delivered by Terrey are entertaining, they would be amusing to watch no matter their origins.
In the traditions of all the best family entertainment, this piece will resonate with everyone from the elderly to all but the very young, combining superficial gags with intelligent wordplay to enormously satisfying effect.