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BWW Review: Breezy Date Night Fare VACANCY Prods Existentialist Metatheatrical Daydreams

Candice van Litsenborgh and
Richard Wright-Firth in VACANCY

An independently produced fringe theatre piece, VACANCY is the second in a trio of presentations from Canned Rice Productions at the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre this year. It follows FROM THE HEART, a fragmented jukebox musical drama about the life of June Carter Cash, and precedes COURT, a play about the relationship between rape, its victims and the media. The brainchild of Candice van Litsenborgh and Richard Wright-Firth, Canned Rice Productions sees the pair shifting roles from project to project, with Van Litsenborgh having scripted and FROM THE HEART and COURT, with Wright-Firth at the helm of those respective productions. Both appear on stage in VACANCY, with Claire-Louise Worby directing the piece.

VACANCY is an intimate romance between two isolated individuals. Eleanor and Gavin live side-by-side in an apartment building, and the play presents their story in three movements: a day in the life of Eleanor, the same day from Gavin's perspective, and a meet cute where the audience sees what happens when the two connect in a park. The narrative, which feels as familiar as a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com, frees itself from the conventional by the choice to present VACANCY as a physical theatre piece. Accompanied by a range of sound cues compiled by Wayne Joshua, such as television theme songs, specific and ambient sound effects, French songs and cuts of instantly recognisable instrumentals, Worby directs Van Litsenborgh and Wright-Firth in choreography that has its foundation in mime, clowning and dance.

Although the Worby's direction offers a sincere clarity that holds VACANCY together, her work lacks authority in manipulating the rhythm of the piece, which is mainly dictated by the soundtrack that underscores the action. The production relies very much on the actors' somewhat divergent talents, which Worby has managed to marry on stage. Van Litsenborgh assimilates a diverse range of facial expressions, mimed activities and dance steps to make Eleanor into a sympathetic contemporary everywoman, while Wright Firth draws on mime and clowning to breathe life into Gavin. Wright-Firth is particularly excellent; his transformation into Gavin's clown persona is quite remarkable.

VACANCY evokes a kind of quirky nostalgia even as it captures the zeitgeist that contemporary social media would have society believe defines part of twenty-first-century life: the state of being an introvert with FOMO, the acronym that represents society's "fear of missing out". (The more recent counter-construct of LOMO - or "love of missing out" has not yet seeped into Eleanor and Gavin's world.) Characterised by a kind of hipster charm, VACANCY is breezy date night fare. And if you are single, perhaps a spin on the Alexander Bar's famous revolving sofa will place you next to a neighbour you never knew you should know.


Candice van Litsenborgh and
Richard Wright-Firth in VACANCY

An independently produced fringe theatre piece, VACANCY is a metaphor for the challenges of actors and theatre-makers working within the context of independent fringe theatre production. We are all Eleanors and Gavins, stuck in our rooms as we listen to the echoes of each other's creativity and face the demons that suppress our own. This normative state is both comforting and frustrating. It is comforting because it would not have become a norm without offering something in return for the effort, be it artistic, skill-based, financial, social or political. It is frustrating because the shape-shifting nature of the fringe sees ideas swallowed up, with work disappearing as quickly as it appears.

I found it difficult to watch VACANCY without remembering WRETCHED, a similarly styled and themed independently produced fringe theatre piece that I saw at the National Arts Festival in 2014. The pieces are distinct; this is no accusation of plagiarism - indeed, WRETCHED, which Néka Da Costa, Jeremy Richard and Claudine Ullman created for the Juicy Collective, could almost be a sequel to or second act of VACANCY. Rather, it is a daydream considering whether two sets of theatre-makers on opposite sides of the country dealing with similar ideas within a particular framework of theatre practice could find a common space with common resources that leads to either two further-refined theatre pieces that can play in repertory on fringe or main stages across the country or one merged piece that draws on the strengths of both plays that can follow the same trajectory into a wider public consciousness.

How does collaboration happen across the diverse spaces, both physical and creative, that create the fringe environment? How do we connect in a way that allows our work to grow? If we scour, say, the National Arts Festival Programme with the idea of finding like minds in pursuit of active collaboration, how do we make and nurture those connections beyond the foyer of the venue or the Long Table? Are like minds the minds that will push us forward? What does it take to remain true to an artistic ethos or vision when minds, like or unlike, diverge? Do we, as theatre-makers in the context of an unforgiving economic reality that complicates the journey towards creative expression, too often shut down opportunities to collaborate and grow our work just so that we can get it on stage?

VACANCY raised all of these questions for me as a theatre-making critic, as an actor in the audience and as a teacher who can do. While the answers might perhaps never be definitive, contemporary fringe venues like the Alexander Bars Upstairs Theatre in Cape Town and the POPArt Theatre in Johannesburg, along with centralised festivals like the National Arts Festival, are structures that collectively may offer flashes of clarity.

VACANCY runs until 11 June in the Alexander Bar's Upstairs Theatre. Tickets cost R80-R90 and can be booked online at the Alexander Bar website or purchased at the bar. For telephone bookings and enquiries, call 021 300 1652. Alexander Bar & Café is situated at 76 Strand Street in the Cape Town city centre and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

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