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BWW Review: Top Notch Cabaret DANI & THE LION Reinvigorates the Genre at #NAF16's Albany Cabaret Club

David Lubbe and Daneel van der Walt in
Photo credit: CuePix/Aaliyah Tshabalala -
National Arts Festival 2016

DANI & THE LION is cabaret as it was meant to be. Created by Daneel van der Walt, who performs original songs and stories with a cameo appearance by a few unexpected classic tunes, this show sets the gold standard for this trickiest of theatre genres. It is a boldly original and playfully post-modern work, with a finger on the pulse of social buzzwords and popular culture, a strong sense of pastiche and a touching sense of self-awareness.

In DANI & THE LION, it is the last night at The Den, a bar whose flickering sign twinkles sadly at the audience from the stage. Dani (Van der Walt) and the Lion (pianist David Lubbe) take to the stage one last time, with a special programme devised for their final audience. Dani sings about "Baby", a woman who uses what she has to do what she can, as well as an assortment of animals, including "Gerry the Giraffe" and "Lesbian Seagull". She delivers "A Lecture on Neutrinos" while Lion helps to illustrate her points using some nifty props. Van der Walt runs the gamut of emotions, her material being joyous, pathetic, heartbreaking and humorous. Van der Walt has created a magnificent body of work with which she can play in the show.

As a performer, Van der Walt is a live wire. She has incredible control and knows how to read the audience from moment to moment as DANI & THE LION plays out. She delivers everything one could want from a first class cabaret performer. She brings out the raw emotion and rhapsodic elements in each of her songs, her deep and sensuous voice wrapping itself around her sometimes witty and sometimes touching lyrics. Lubbe compliments her perfectly as the much put-upon Lion who hears his chanteuse's requests and decides that it is easier to grimace and bear it.

Daneel van der Walt in
Photo credit: CuePix/Aaliyah
Tshabalala - National Arts
Festival 2016

Nicholas Spagnoletti serves Van Der Walt's writing well in his direction of DANI & THE LION. He has given the piece a free-wheeling rhythm and worked with the cast to create some fun visual gags that dot the production. Best of all, Spagnoletti and the performers have worked together to create storytelling that brims with integrity. The subject matter might launch into fantastic and bizarre worlds, but this team brings everything home with complete authenticity.

The design, on which Spagnoletti and Van der Walt have collaborated, is also top notch. Van Der Walt wears a stunning costume, a retro hat of flowers, fruit and leaves being the perfect finishing touch to her glamorous silver dress. Lubbe's Lion wears a shirt and pants, with a marvellous mane of feathers - complete with ears - matching precisely the quirky tone of the show on the whole.

With DANI & THE LION having played all but two of its performances at the National Arts Festival, it is surprising to see that it has not, as of this writing, been recognised with a Standard Bank Ovation Award, especially when compared with some of the winners already on this year's list. These awards are intended to recognise excellence and innovation. DANI & THE LION is excellent in every aspect of its production, but is it innovative? If the kind of innovation sought by the judging panel includes the rescuing of an entire genre at the National Arts Festival's National Lottery Fringe from almost total irrelevance, the conversations that DANI & THE LION opens up about what the cabaret format can achieve, and the challenge laid down to other artists producing cabaret work to re-interrogate their relationship with the genre itself as well as the quality of their work, then yes, it is. Without such recognition, DANI & THE LION is one show that could lay claim to having been - in the words of Julie Andrews - egregiously overlooked.

DANI & THE LION opened at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on 5 July. There are two performances left, on 9 July at 22:00 and 10 July at 10:00. Bookings are through the National Arts Festival website.

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From This Author David Fick