BWW Reviews: Rambunctious FERGUS OF GALLOWAY Musical Takes the Stage at the Rosebank
New works of musical theatre on the Cape Town fringe are a welcome, if all too rare addition to the theatrical landscape of the Mother City. FERGUS OF GALLOWAY, written by Alexander McCall Smith (who created The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of novels) and Tom Cunningham is one such piece of work, based on LE ROMAN DE FERGUS, a 13th-century Arthurian romance by Guillaume le Clerc.
In its current run at the Rosebank Theatre, FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is billed as a musical. Some might call it a comic opera or operetta, and it certainly has the feel of Gilbert and Sullivan about it at times. On Cunningham's website, the play is described as a mini-opera. When considering its genre, what FERGUS OF GALLOWAY reminds me of most is the Monty Python comic oratorio NOT THE MESSIAH (HE'S A VERY NAUGHTY BOY), in a staging that embraces the verve and vitality of THE FANTASTICKS. In the final analysis, it might just be simpler to call it a musical - considering, of course, the full scope of the genre, which is not all about big flashy shows like ANYTHING GOES or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is framed by a narrative about a group of travelling players. Down on their luck, the troupe has shrunk to just four, who have taken shelter in a barn and hope to earn a longer stay there through the performance of their tales of Fergus of Galloway. Thus they launch into a series of episodes from this Scottish knight-elect's life, as he hunts stags, battles villains and courts a beautiful princess. His quest to become a worthy knight and his rescue of Princess Galiene bind the play within the play together, providing FERGUS OF GALLOWAY with its overall structure. Each episode is built around a song, linked by narration in ballad form.
The score of FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is winning. While its roots are clearly classical in style, the score flirts with folk music, gospel and blues as the story shifts through its various chapters. The solo guitar accompaniment in this production and vocal arrangements, which include percussive effects and backup singing from the company, bring the music to life vividly. The score is rich and high-spirited.
The company of actors consists of Daniel Richards, Jessica Munna, Sne Dladla and Jonathan Tait.
Richards, who takes on the part of Fergus, is a young actor who, it appears, can do just about anything. Straight out of university, he was nominated at the start of this year as the Most Promising Student at the Fleur du Cap awards and has performed in RICHARD III at Maynardville and PASSAGE at the Baxter Theatre since then. In tackling FERGUS OF GALLOWAY, he triumphs once again and delivers the best musical theatre performance by an actor seen on Cape Town stages so far this year.
As Galiene, Munna delivers fantastic vocal interpretations of the McCall Smith-Cunningham compositions, and also contributes much to the framework narrative as a kind of mother to the three men in the troupe of actors around whom the play revolves. In the piece proper, her delivery of the narration in between songs sometimes felt slightly under-energised, which made the following the episodic narrative a little more difficult than it should have been.
Dladla, who plays a variety of different roles throughout the musical, juxtaposes his compact physique with a booming voice to great comic effect. One of the great highlights of the show is his performance as a cantankerous dwarf who appears all too briefly in one section of the show. His contribution as an ensemble player in FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is invaluable.
Providing most of the accompaniment for the show and doubling as the "minstrel director" of the piece, Tait is expectedly a better musician than an actor. Nonetheless, he still delivers an entertaining turn as the evil knight that Fergus has to battle mid-way through the show. His accompaniment on guitar for all but one of the songs, when he himself is acting, is phenomenal, musicianship at its finest.
Co-directors Nicholas Ellenbogen and David Scales keep the pace of FERGUS OF GALLOWAY going at a rambunctious clip. The pair has managed to find the perfect style in which to play the material. What sometimes is lost amongst all of the hijinks is clarity of narrative, perhaps because not enough has been done to establish "button" moments at the end of each musical sequence. One of the challenges in establishing that convention in FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is that the first musical number is quite a way in, following the lengthy framework prologue. However, in an episodic piece like this, audiences need that signal to move on with the narrative, otherwise the chance that they will be left behind when the narrative continues, remains.
The design of FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is made up of multi-functional bits and pieces of symbolic materials: ladders for towers, levels upon which the actors can clamber up and down and so on. Perhaps the fanciest element of the set was a forest curtain made of brown-paper, which refused to co-operate with the actors when it was needed. Playing with the malfunctioning curtain would have seemed perfectly in line with the concept of the production and would probably have gone unnoticed had the curtain not obscured the stage left action for the rest of the piece. The skill of the actors is such that the forest was probably an unnecessary addition anyway; this quartet manages to create everything they need with the few props they have and the audience's willingness to play this game of make-believe with them.
FERGUS OF GALLOWAY is one of the most refreshing pieces of theatre that has appeared on stage in Cape Town this year. It is the kind of play that will send you out into the night grinning from ear to ear. A great story, complemented by a marvellous score, and brought to life by a tightly-knit ensemble of performers, FERGUS OF GALLOWAY makes for a great night of new musical theatre, a South African premiere of which the Rosebank can be proud of hosting in its intimate theatrical haven.
Performances of FERGUS OF GALLOWAY take place at 8pm from Wednesdays to Saturdays, with a 3pm matinee on Saturdays for pensioners, until 28 June 2014. Tickets, ranging in price from R60 - R100, are available through Webtickets or on 074 101 5066. The Rosebank Theatre is located at 16 Alma Road in Rosebank, Cape Town. Please note that Alma Road is split by a train track, and that the theatre is on the Liesbeeck Park side of the tracks.