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Art, Culture

The Last Show

by Colleen Balchin / Images by Dean Hutton / 01.07.2013

The Last Show – it’s a pretty big title to live up to, especially on said show’s second run, but following the run away success of Jemma Khan’s previous work, The Epicene Butcher, The Last Show was always going to have expectations to fulfill. By the close of its first weekend at POPArt last Sunday, the project is nothing if not strong-willed, and forthright.

The lovechild of performers Rob Pombo and Toni Morkel and directorial debut of accomplished designer and performer Jemma Kahn (director of the award-winning Epicene Butcher), The Last Show carries with it great sparkle and credibility; my expectations were high. In a climate of sweat-drenched two-handers and ‘Theatre on the Square’ chamber drama, it wasn’t hard to be swept up in the whimsy of the show’s blurb, and the familiar and loved funny-faces of its stars.

The work rests firmly within the bounds of borderline surreal realism, with few but clever conceits easily filling the small, floor-level playing space at POPArt. The set is portioned off with a clutter of boxes, an island of a kitchen in which Ronnel and Ronny, mother and son, will enter a rapidly descending downward spiral of pain, grief, fear and smoothies.

If it sounds flip, off-kilter and cutesy – it is. There is a light disregard for heavy-handed convention – a few well-placed eyelines and the odd verbal reference quickly bring invisible pet-dog Rusty to life, while the occasional soundscape bleeds just a wash of the show’s Brixton setting into its drama. The focus of the show is short and clean – between Morkel and Pombo is a chemistry so strange, so palpable, so delicious that it is and must be The Last Show’s major pivot.

This most recent incarnation of The Last Show runs off a script, itself based on Morkel, Pombo and Kahn’s more improvisational version of 2012. One assumes the purpose of the script is to streamline, specify and perhaps create a longevity that unscripted work cannot attain. In some ways, this is achieved. Although I’m not equipped to compare this run to the last, The Last Show seems now to be a clear, focussed narrative – and perhaps importantly, I could easily imagine it being re-created by another cast and director, at another time (surely, a key feature of the scripted play).

However, what has either been omitted in the writing of the script, or only now shows up as missing, is a certain strength in the plotting of the story, the pace of the narrative.

Upon discussion, Pombo cites the Mayan 2012 ending of the world as major driving force behind the original creative process. However, in the show that now runs, in the cold morning-light of 2013 and the world not actually ending; most of the chaos and consequence are absent. The demise of society is hinted at by newspapers, flung gracefully onto stage by Kahn (herself a performative moment) from a pile she keeps on her mixing desk. The newspaper is written in isiZulu. Son Ronny’s translation is cheeky and adorable, a lovely and intensely local detail that strikes a particular chord of my generational heartstring. However, as events grow more and more catastrophic ‘out there’ beyond the kitchen set, the play fails to kick up a gear in either its atmosphere or its styling. Like the clumsy one-line exposition (“I studied Zulu in Matric, Ma. I even got an A!”, singsongs Ronny, needlessly explaining his fundamental grasp of a language other than ‘jock’), somewhere in explaining the end of the world, there is a distinct lack of apocalypse.

Although a soaring, M83-driven revelation visits Ronnel just a few beats into the story, foreshadowing the awful events to come, the shining surreal peak arrives too soon when it fails to be followed up in a comparable moment of gravity in the rest of the play. It is not the only set-up that fails to receive a satisfactory pay-off. Ronny’s parallel paternal hallucination seems to be the moment to lift and turn the story, but fails to either make plot or thematic sense – and I find myself wondering what purpose the interlude really fulfilled.

Luckily, I don’t believe that the success of the show is lost in its somehow incomplete storyline. The performances are sharp, charming and intriguing – Morkel and Pombo are two truly watchable individuals, and great care has been taken to present characters and details which are just the right side of recognisable. And this surely is theatre’s greatest potential: the exploitation of the live, volatile human form, its totality of quirks and nuances, our automatic connection to the living man and woman onstage that is tirelessly disconnected by stylisation and conceit.

The soundtrack, pulled from recent-but-not-current, off-beat archives, and the use of short-lived tableau tug the story through its phases, drawing us along from one puddle of delight to the next. Residents of Dainfern (a self-identification that to any other South African is as good as alien), Ronnel and Ronny are set up to be judged, to ridiculed, to be eventually destroyed. Their tender and spooky black comedy both soothes and stokes some of my greatest fears about people, and South Africans, and the end of the world.

As its players gather momentum in their run at the NAF Grahamstown, the sharply-invoked human condition which gives rise to The Last Show should lift the clumsy narrative and perhaps un-ruthless direction of what is otherwise a gem of a small-stage spectacular. Naïve, the work is nonetheless bold and at the same time subtle. Although I suspect that The Last Show’s 2012-driven climax may have run out of relevance by the end of its 21-show run, culminating in the 969 Festival at Wits later in the year, I am certain that its players and director will not.

* The Last Show runs from 27 June – 07 July at NAF Grahamstown and again on July 13 & 14 at 969 at The University of the Witwatersrand.

**Image © Dean Hutton

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