Having a ball: Janice Honeyman brings back pantomime magic with a digitally-enhanced ‘Cinderella’
This year’s pantomime is a big, warm-hearted production that has special effects, 3D graphics and digital projections…. And the magic remains.
The most spectacular part of Johannesburg’s annual pantomime was usually its grand and quite magnificent scenery. Coming all the way from England, huge sets created a world of glittering palaces, gloomy forests and lively villages that often mesmerised the audience and drew wows of appreciation as the curtains opened on each new scene.
This year, writer, actress and director Janice Honeyman brings back her annual panto after a Covid lull; the pantomime, “a participatory form of theatre,” in which the audience is invited to engage with the show and the performers, returns with the perennially popular Cinderella.
This time, the physical sets have been replaced by locally-developed digital scenery. Traditionalists may have some misgivings, but they should be blown away as soon as the curtain rises. The backgrounds crafted by production designer Andrew Timm and his team from Andrew Timm Creative are nothing short of breathtaking: 550 LED screens form a proscenium arch, with side panels, sliding doors and a vast backdrop so the audience sees layers of video that create the illusion of depth.
The traditional village comprises a delightful collection of quaint and colourful houses, which animated characters walking around bring to life. Expect also comic book-style speech-bubbles shouting “Pow” and “Biff” as someone gets his head whacked; flickering candles on the walls; shooting stars; and animal eyes that blink menacingly in the forest at night.
Digital technology allows for extra (and almost limitless) inventivity, seen in the way Cinderella transforms for the ball or in how she departs, leaving in a horse-drawn carriage.
And yet, all the tricks and technical wizardry don’t detract from the traditional magic of live performance, and the pantomime unfolds in its usual formulaic process.
There are gorgeous costumes, snatches of pop songs breaking out every few moments, lively dancing, wordplay, innuendos and double entendres flying around.
Apart from the initial doubts about whether a flat-screen backdrop could deliver, musical theatre performer and dancer Dolly Louw – who is cast in the role of the fairy godmother Gogomama – seems to have stronger narrating skills than singing, and the tale soon picked up pace around her.
Ben Voss and Desmond Dube make a return performance as the lusty ugly sisters, and together they caper around being saucy, hilariously unsexy and politically incorrect – their act wrapped in palpable alchemy.
Dancer, singer and actress Kiruna-Lind Devar, in the lead role of Cinderella, has a great voice and a personality that adds a welcome independent streak to the girl waiting to meet her prince; while Kyle Grant plays Prince Charming, with a warm heart but not a lot of action in the head.
You can’t help thinking she’d be better off with Buttons, played by the always-excellent Bongi Mthombeni. His performance is at once funny, charming, vulnerable, with a voice that stands out; Justin Swartz plays his faithful sidekick, Donkey Houtie. Their great rapport wins lots of laughs. When they lead the inevitable audience participation song, you’d feel too awful about disappointing them not to stand up and join in.
The lesser characters and backing dancers are all admirable, delivering a pageant of colours and movement that is delightful to kids and adults. It’s a nice touch that the live band is worked into the action too, with musical director Dale-Ray Scheepers occasionally popping up from the orchestra pit to remind us of the important role the music plays.
It’s a big, warm-hearted production in many ways, and with added special effects, 3D graphics and digital projections, the magic is even greater. DM/ML