Robyn Sassen – Cue

Small story has huge heart

This six-tissue production teases apart contemporary South African stereotype with astuteness and focus.

In Jewish culture, there is an idiomatic expression called “bittere gelechte”. It translates literally into “sad joke”, and has been the impetus for generations of Yiddish humour.

While not a conventional type of joke, it is a means of talking about hardship that throws up dark laughter in the place of maudlin. This kind of idiom informs the kernel of London Road and is one of the reasons why your laughter in this piece will be generously sprinkled with tears, possibly to the point of your not being able to smile at its closure.

One of the first nominees of the Standard Bank Ovation Award, London Road is directed by Lara Bye and written by Nicholas Spagnoletti. It teases apart several contemporary South African stereotypes with astuteness and focus that will hit you hard in the solar plexus and make you think differently about both old Jewish yentas and drug-dealing, Aids riddled Nigerians and, by default, of the whole complicated mess that is our post-democratic society.

On paper, these cultural stereotypes might sound poles apart. Using them as such, the play is a prism to infrequently explored areas: the collapse of dignity in urban flatlands in the face of shifting currents or demographics; and the generation of white South Africans who’ve left for “greener” pastures. Leaving elderly parents to forage for themselves, ultimatly to die alone.

Rosa Kaplowitz, played by Robyn Scott, is a 70-something widow. Formerly as resident of the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow, after losing her husband  Isaac and the emigration of her son & daughter, she has relocated to Sea Point.

Stella, played by Ntombi Makhutshi, is her opposite. She’s a young woman, an illegal immigrant, from Nigeria. Living in the city’s underbelly and supplying unlikely but monied clients with cocaine, ecstasy and other chemical vitals, she lives in shadows and in fear.

Stella and Rosa are tenants in the same block of flats. On London Road. The story teeters on predictability as this unlikely friendship unwinds and develops. However, it is utterly sterling performances of the cast and the brilliance with which it is put together that makes this play one of the Festival’s must-sees.

Scott interprets Rosa with a warmth and empathy that is difficult to believe. The character is more than 40 yers her senior; she embodies the endearing vunerable idiosyncrasies of an ageing woman in indifferent health, in a performance which, if you have a beloved older woman in your life, or have lost one, will simply melt you.

Makhutshi is well cast physically and offers a three-dimensional reflection of her character, but her accent is not held consistantly; she gives Stella flesh and blood through the words in the script rather than embodying her from the inside out, as Scott does Rosa.

London Road is a six-tissue production, but it does not manipulate you or slip into cliché. It enfolds glorious subtleties which are about melding cultures, including Nigerian-evocative marimba and the klezmer-evocative clarinet, in the interstices of the play that colour its transitions.

Its a small story with a huger heart and is one of those Festival moments that won’t leave your head when you leave this city.

-Robyn Sassen, Cue guest editor