By BRUCE DENNILL
Story Book Theatre / Directed by Jill Girard and Keith Smith / People’s Theatre, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein, South Africa
The People’s Theatre’s Story Book Theatre series follows a formula that can hardly miss. Classic fairy tales are stripped down to their most elemental details – in order to keep them both brief and accessible to the young audience the shows are pitched at – and an energetic triple-threat cast whistles through each story, swapping costumes and characters between, songs, dance routines and asides to the audience.
Added to an already full dance card is the capacity to deal with unexpected audience interactions and interruptions, with toddlers wandering onto the stage and mischievous slightly older types more knowingly making themselves part of the narrative, requiring cast members to gently but firmly manoeuvre them offstage while keeping the plot moving forward.
Using fairy tales as the source material makes the show interesting in a contemporary context. Helpfully, many of the kids in the audience know at least the gist of the different stories, and so get excited as each segment is announced. And there is also the bleak darkness of those writings, used in times past to both teach children serious truths and to warn them of dangers they might encounter. That latter aspect is dramatically played down in this production – witches are either patently ineffective villains or cuddly Barry Humphries types, and the Big Bad Wolf is just looking for validation, rather than dinner – but without denying the power of the original fables.
The episodic nature of the show (plus the inclusion of a short interval) means that most youngsters should be able to sit through the piece without getting too impatient. Some of the stories are better known than others, but that’s a positive, as in between such familiar material as Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and the Emperor’s New Clothes, audiences may be introduced for the first time to the Tinder Box and the Brave Rooster.
The cast – Nonhlanhla Mkhonto, Joelle Rochecouste, Luciano Zuppa, Katlego Nche and Raymond Skinner – have excellent chemistry, evident not only in their interactions when in character but in their easy collective adaptation to moments when young guest co-stars (intentional or otherwise) take matters off-script.
This production creates a space (occasionally with the help of a well-known pop song) in which children feel comfortable to express themselves and respond unreservedly to strong performers. Both are highly desirable outcomes in a world where screen-obsessed sullenness is more the norm.