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BWW Reviews: Nothing Much to See in A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO

On paper, A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO looks as though it should work. Writer-composer Jervis Pennington's previous foray into musical theatre, SCRIBBLE, earned him two Naledi awards and had a run in New York after touring South Africa. The show itself is billed as an 'a cappella musical comedy', which means the audience can expect some tight harmonies and interesting vocal arrangements of songs that help to tell the story of the small Karoo hamlet mentioned in the title. At the helm of the production is Tara Notcutt, who has a number of acclaimed productions under her belt, including ...MISKIEN, MAFEKING ROAD and THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. The show even had an enthusiastic reception at the recent National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, where the local press described standing ovations received by the show as 'well-deserved'. Only a fraction of this immense promise is realised in A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO as it appears on stage at the Kalk Bay Theatre in Cape Town.

A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO sets itself up as a living storybook, a revue of anecdotes about the people living in and around Fokol Lutho, the name of which is made up of Afrikaans and Zulu words meaning 'nothing'. (The script gets some mileage out of the fact that 'fokol' is a curse word, a comic motif that pops up throughout the piece.) Some of the tales are told through the spoken word, others are told in song and the dynamic between these two dramatic modes and the conceit of the entire musical is carefully established at the top of the show, with a touching number ("I Wish He Knew My Story") about the stories that lie hidden beyond the façade of nothingness that most people see when they drive past the town. With topics including the creation of the scrum-half standing pass, the first heart transplant and a girlfriend whose family seems to be obsessed by alphabetical monograms, there is a kind of folksiness to the stories akin to Herman Charles Bosman's stories of the Groot Marico district. So far, so good.

The problem is that the scripting of the stories is superficial and nowhere near as good Bosman's tales, when they need to be at least that good for A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO to be a great musical. Another setback comes in the form of a story about the secret of an alternative fuel source that died with one of the locals, at which the characters hint throughout the show. Punted as the granddaddy of all stories, its eventual appearance is an object lesson in anti-climax. Another obstacle to the credibility of the piece arises late in the show, when a grand narrative style plot is forced onto the material. In the style of THE FULL MONTY, the five regular guys with whom we have spent almost an hour decide to save the town's reputation by entering a national singing contest, which is then made out to be the raison d'êtere for the entire evening's entertainment. In short, Pennington's book for A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO is all over the place. For the show to work, he needs to make some clear choices about what is meant to hold the show together.

Pennington's score for A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO is more successfully executed than his book. Similar in style to David Kramer and Taliep Petersen's KAT AND THE KINGS, which draws on the same Motown-styled barbershop and doo-wop influences, it is refreshing to hear new South African music composed for the stage. It is even more refreshing to hear the score presented acoustically, which gives everything a rich and warm sound. But when you are introducing a newly composed score, why would you supplant it in the audience's mind by using Berry Gordy Jr's "Do You Love Me?" as an encore? Surely you would want the audience to go out into the night singing your tunes, not one that they almost surely know thanks to its chart history and prominent inclusion in both the film and stage versions DIRTY DANCING?

The show is performed by a quintet of talented singers, including Pennington himself. He is joined by Carlo Daniels, Moenier Adams, Waasief Piekaan and Nkosekhaya Mgoqi. All deliver uniformly splendid vocal performances, a testament to the solid and layered work of musical director, Paul Morrissey. The great vocals sometimes come at the expense of characterisation, particularly when it comes to Pennington and Mgoqi's performances, and Daniels does his best in a part that is beyond his years. But Adams and Piekaan deliver top-notch performances, completely convincing as their respective personae.

One of the most successful aspects of A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO is Notcutt's direction, which does a great deal to cover up the weaknesses of the material itself. She keeps the momentum of the production going, which I suspect is one of the major reasons that the show has proved popular with audiences. Without a moment to sink into the material, there is no time to realise how just how lightweight the show is. Juanita Ferreira's exquisite design also helps. The stage environment is beautifully constructed.

Somewhere along the path from concept to production, A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO lost sight of what lies at its core: the simple act of storytelling, of giving life to a communal experience through an oral tradition that is universal to all cultures. Some appealing songs and a few chuckles aside, the show falls short of what it aspires to be: an engaging and memorable musical comedy that holds its own in the local musical theatre scene. A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO could still achieve that standing, but it would require a great deal of intensive work to get it up to scratch.

A TOWN CALLED FOKOL LUTHO played a season at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, closing on 7 July after a season of nine performances. The play is currently running at the Kalk Bay Theatre in Cape Town, with performances until 10 August. Tickets can be books at the Kalk Bay Theatre website.

Photo credits: Jesse Kramer, Michelle Morgan.

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From This Author David Fick