I love the story of the Pied Piper with all its darkness as told by Robert Browning (1812-1889) in his epic poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The delightful version of Pied Piper at the National Children’s Theatre turns the darkness aside and has the Mayor and his corrupt cronies repenting and the children returning after a “year and a day” during which time the Mayor and the townsfolk clean up the town and build a bright new place for the children to live in peace and harmony with one another.
The evening which began with the formal announcement of the passing of Francois Theron and the dedication of this performance to him dispelled the atmosphere of gloom which had shrouded the front of house before the show.
While Francois (and note that I break from the time honoured custom of using surnames – because Francois was my friend, as are the rest of the NCT team) was too ill to direct this production, it was “his” 42nd production with the National Children’s Theatre. Directed by Renos Nicos Spanoudes and Sarah Barlin, (Renos claims he mentored Sarah more than directed), the work was delightful and the decision that “the show would go on” was one that Francois himself would have wanted. Francois was always the consummate professional.
Forgive me, especially dear Renos and Sarah, at this point, for making this “review” so much more of an eulogy for our beloved Francois than an actual review of this his last work – work he started but was unable to complete because of ill health. I thank you both for taking on this task and doing it so magnificently, once again with the help of the special team Francois gathered around him, with Dale Scheepers as Musical Director, Sibusiso Nhlapo as choreographer, Stan Knight as set designers (and I LOVED the change in the city – so clever), Sarah Roberts on costumes, with Yo Mama, Daniel Simion and Mike Koenig doing sound effects and, as always, Willie van Staden doing his “bit” as Stage Manager.
My first memories of Francois go back many years when he made a hilarious and (in)appropriate “aside” in a children’s theatre production. It drew my attention away from actor to a person with a wonderful sense of humour. When he started working at the National Children’s Theatre I was initially nervous – who could replace the genius of Joyce Levinsohn? Turns out Francois Theron could.
Over the years I have attended several of Francois’ productions as resident director of the National Children’s Theatre. I have never been disappointed, whether he actually directed or not. The standard of work has always been superb, and he has brought to the theatre something which is best described by so many of the comments I saw on Facebook this morning as “magic”. The magic has never stopped. Which of his productions stand out? Well, Charlotte’s Web, The Secret Garden, Under the Baobab Tree, later renamed … I smile as so many memories come flooding out. Frogs and insects, giant peaches, Pippi Longstocking, icy vistas in the winter world of the faun, orphans, Seuss and more … I can’t pick a favourite.
It was always a pleasure to have a word with Francois on opening night. He never gave the impression that he was too busy to talk despite the fact that virtually every other person in the room wanted to say “Break a Leg, Francois”. His gentle courtesy was always in place. I teased him about it after the death of his beloved mother, pointing out how his mother would be looking down from heaven and smiling to see he remembered his manners as she taught him.
For the little ones, there are no memories of a resident director. It is the story and how it is told that counts. Pied Piper didn’t disappoint. The medieval German folk legend came to life in a modern South African city. The Pied Piper (Sibusiso Nhlapo Ferguson) is a colourful (bringing out the meaning of “pied”) character despite the fact that his clothes were not quite as outlandish as the clothes of “red and yellow” which Browning proclaims. I would have liked him to be a more traditional sangoma, but maybe my perceptions of modern sangomas are too rooted in pictures of the days of yore. The moral of the original story which is to pay your debts and honour your promises is somewhat lost in the tangle of cleaning up grime and corruption and making the world a better place. The Mayor (Gamelihle Bovana) and Deputy Mayor (Danny Meaker) scurry around doing their bit at the behest of the young lame boy (Gugu Dlamini) of Browning’s tale who “in after years, if you would blame his sadness, he was used to say “It’s dull in our town since my playmates left!” All the acting was superb, that of the adults and the children, Group 1 on opening night – Pascalle Durand, Kesiah Irvin, Gomolemo Tsosane, and Lwazi Ntombela. Adult actor, Kopano Tshabalala, served as Villager and Understudy to the Boy.
The point that was made really well is that dirt leads to disease – and of course, in the original story the rats brought the dreaded Plague which killed off about half of the citizenry of any town. Our own crime and grime problem is more familiar and the message was clear – it is up to our leaders to make the world a better place for the children.
I loved the production and think that it should be well supported during its run. If the Browning version read by my father thrilled me, how much more will this version do for young people? Lots, I promise without relying on the extravagant promises of the “Mayor and Corporation” which would so sadly fail. My promise will be honoured by the wonderful creative and dramatic team of the NCT.
One (almost) last word, Moira Katz, the CEO of the NCT has been ill and was unable to be present. I wish her a speedy recovery, and assure her that in her absence her staff members have been doing their tasks with marvellous competence and the utmost dedication. Moira can be proud of each and every one of them.
The Pied Piper is running at the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown from 12 June to 15 July 2018 at 3 Junction Avenue, Parktown, Johannesburg, Telephone 011 484 1584/5.