Business Day

IN THIS age of special effects, beautiful but dumb big-budget blockbusters and a belief that it’s okay for audiences’ brains to be comfortably numbed as long as their senses are seduced, many are hankering for a return to the basics of good storytelling.

For the past three years, the “best movie” Oscars have gone to low- budget films — Slumdog Millionaire, The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech — and reports suggest that the heyday of the 3D box-office bonanza is over, with moviegoers reluctant to pay top dollar to experience smoke and mirrors but zero plot.

Similarly, when it comes to lavish theatre musicals, bigger doesn’t always mean better. The much-hyped and much-fraught Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, by Julie Taymor and with music by U2’s Bono and The Edge, has started previewing to brutal reviews.

Reportedly the most expensive musical in Broadway history, with a 65m budget, it has been lashed as being a “shrill, insipid mess”, “shockingly clumsy” and “clinically bipolar”.

Peter Parker says that “with great power comes great responsibility”, and the same could be said of swollen budgets: creative integrity can come under pressure when financiers want to see a return on their investment.

That’s why when a tiny human story with a gigantic heart comes along — a tale simply and gently told, that is affecting but unaffected, that tugs at the emotional core — we stand up and applaud.

Such a treasure is Cape Town playwright Nicholas Spagnoletti’s LONDON ROAD, directed by Lara Bye, which has premiered in Johannesburg’s Old Mutual Theatre on the Square after sending sales of Kleenex rocketing wherever it has been performed.

Having missed its sold-out run at the National Arts Festival last year, which won a Golden Ovation Award, I went to see this two-hander with high expectations. But the play opened with a disconcerting jolt. Robyn Scott, who plays elderly Jewish widow Rosa, is talking to young Nigerian Stella (Ntombi Makhutshi), a fellow tenant in a block of flats in Sea Point — yet Scott’s character at first sight appears to be a grotesque caricature to the point of being painful.

With her tremulous, high-pitched, bleating whine, she’s a cross between Megan Mullally’s character Karen in the sitcom Will and Grace and Brenda Blethyn’s character in the movie Secrets and Lies. But this initial dismay quickly wears off as Scott skilfully makes the audience warm to her astonishing character over the next 65 minutes — a process that is critical for the ending to have any effect.

After initially alienating us — much as she must have done to the immediately suspicious and guarded Rosa — Stella soon captivates with her bluntness, bawdy humour and immense empathy for the plight of others. As they gradually scratch away at the surface to reveal the humanity in each other, the characters move beyond the clichés and stereotypes of their first impressions, and so does the audience.

Rosa’s children and grandchildren have emigrated to Australia and Israel, her husband Isaac (not the brightest or most passionate of men, she says blithely, but a nice man nonetheless) is dead and she is stuck in a flat in Sea Point’s London Road which, having gone through a seedy patch, is now becoming trendy again. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with Stella, apparently her polar opposite — a young, Nigerian drug dealer who consorts with gangsters.

But the two women are both lonely, abandoned by their loved ones and in need of solace, and they forge a strong connection.

“It’s easier to talk to a complete stranger than to my own bloody daughter,” observes Rosa.

What unfolds is a warm, witty and wise drama, told in snapshots, that is sentimental without being schmaltzy, stirring without being manipulative. It will strike a chord in everyone who has ever felt isolated or friendless, and the irrepressible Rosa is one of the most original and quirky — yet 100% authentic — characters you’re likely to see on stage for a long time.

Thanks to Bye’s direction and wonderful, well-researched characters that have elicited Fleur du Cap- nominated performances , Spagnoletti — who is also up for Fleur du Cap for best new South African script — has struck gold with London Road. Simply put, it’s a play about how small gestures can amount to great things. See it until March 19, and prepare to be moved.

-Christina Kennedy