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BWW Reviews: Delicate and Moving THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE

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Amy Louise Wilson
in THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE

Currently in the middle of a run in Cape Town following a premiere at the National Arts Festival, THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE is the first major professional theatre-making endeavour of recent UCT graduate Joanna Evans. At the National Arts Festival this year, Evans earned a Silver Ovation Award for the play, fulfilling as a professional the potential she showed as Best Up and Coming Director in the Student Festival in 2012. Together with a pair of compelling performers, she has created a moving reflection of the things that draw us together as human beings, as well as of those that tear us apart, creating a story that explores some of the challenges faced by the not quite born free generation of South Africans of which she is a part.

THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE is the story of two young South Africans, Amelia and Andile. Amelia leads a still privileged post-apartheid existence in suburban Hout Bay, while Andile lives in a nearby township. Both are misfits and are quickly drawn to one another when Andile kicks his ball into Amelia's garden on the way home from school. The following year, the year in which Amelia learns how to ride her bicycle, sees their friendship develop before circumstances forces them into their separate existences once more. But this is not the end of the road, for they are destined to meet again years later in a rather more serious situation.

The script captures Amelia and Andile's experiences delicately and poetically. What Evans succeeds in capturing really well is children's facility to use role play not only to push the boundaries of their own experiences, but also as a way of bonding with other children. Watching Amelia and Andile haggle over their imaginary little brother, for instance, snaps into focus the way that children negotiate their reality, growing into themselves as they do so. Another strong point of the script is the way that Evans uses language to depict character and situation. The words that Evans places in Amelia and Andile's mouths are not just sentences that take the action forward, filling time as the plot moves from start to finish, but a vocabulary that makes complex and profound what could so easily have been dismissible and trite. The only moments in which I felt less secure in Evans's writing came early on in the piece, when the conceit of the dual concussions that serves as the vehicle for the action of the play is set up. (It is in this imagined space that the memory of Amelia and Andile's shared experiences comes to life.) There needs to be a little more clarity in establishing this concept so that the audience is not still left puzzling things out when it is time to become immersed in the milieu of late 1990s South Africa.

Aphiwe Livi in THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE

In directing her own writing, Evans has created some vivid imagery to bring THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE to life. Simple devices, such as glass jars that light up and a multi-functional trolley, are used to create an evocative visual world that places the characters front and centre. There is a definite sense of the circular and the cyclical in the way that the stage picture is constructed as well as in the actual staging. What Evans has done conceptually is to place a bicycle wheel in front of the audience and spin it, with each line, move and chunk of dramatic action serving as a spoke in the wheel that is the play. The sense of unity with which she has endowed the production is compelling.

As Amelia and Andile, Amy Louise Wilson and Aphiwe Livi deliver beautifully pitched performances. When adult actors play children, there is always the temptation to veer into a performance that is overly grating, defining primarily the age of the character, but losing out on so much else. Wilson and Livi have avoided that pitfall, crafting two characters that not only convince you of their youth, but also give you a fully fleshed out picture of the emotional life of these two eight-year-olds. This makes the later scenes, when the pair reflects on an experience that once again sees their paths cross and when the two lie broken in their separate situations as the play comes full circle, all the more effective.

Last year at the Gordon Institute of Performing and Creative Arts Directors & Directing Conference, Evans put forward the question of how she, as a young playwright in South Africa, could balance the need to create theatre that expresses her own artistic voice with the practicalities forced upon theatre-makers by theatre managements and governmental funding bodies. Even if it is only for the duration of this project after which this tough reality once again looms on the horizon, Evans seems to have answered her own question in making THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE. Hers is a voice to watch.


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