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BWW Reviews: OLD KIT BAG a Good Old-Fashioned Great Night Out

Jessica Munna, Matthew Roberts, Liz Szymczak
and David Scales in OLD KIT BAG
Photo credit: David Scales

2014 marks the start of the First World War Centenary. With several countries mounting major events to commemorate the Europe-centred global war that saw the death of more than 16 million soldiers and civilians, the Rosebank Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa, presents its own remembrance of what was known at the time as the Great War. OLD KIT BAG uses music of the period as its way into the world of war, using the framework of a concert presented to boost the morale of the battered troops at a medical battalion in St Julien.

The experience of OLD KIT BAG begins as the audience walks into the cosy foyer of the Rosebank Theatre, where Liz Szymczak bustles about as the Matron, welcoming visitors to the show, while Sean Whitehead, who plays Private Pip, sells treats from a tiny tuck-shop window. The other cast members (David Scales as the Captain, Matthew Roberts as the Corporal and Jessica Munna as the Nurse) make appearances as the Back to Front Players make final preparations for the show and you might even hear Liz Starke (another Nurse) as she tinkles the ivories inside the theatre. Everyone is very jolly and the whole affair is inclusive without being intimidating for those who dread audience participation. Once the doors open, the Corporal calls everyone inside, where song sheets and raffle tickets await, and the show proper begins.

OLD KIT BAG starts off with a singalong of classic music hall tunes like "Champagne Charlie", "I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside" and "Row, Row, Row". As it turns out, the medical battalion is having some trouble with its generator and after a few songs, there is a blackout. In the darkness, the sound of a bomb being dropped sets the mood for a series of wartime vignettes that appear out of the darkness, some amusing and others poignant. A particular highlight of this part of the show is a skit taking place in the trenches, which brings home the human element of the battlefield - something obscured in modern warfare, which sadly makes war much easier to wage today. When the generator kicks in, the audience is back in the medical battalion for some more songs, with the performers once again encouraging the audience to join in.

Jessica Munna, Liz Szymczak and Liz Starke in OLD KIT BAG
Photo credit: David Scales

The cast is a tightly-knit ensemble, each bringing a unique energy to the proceedings. Each really shines in specialty numbers like "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" (a touching anti-war song sung by Szymczak) and "The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery" (a moving performance by Munna). Scales tackles "Burlington Bertie from Bow", camping it up nicely in the song proper, but perhaps over-egging the pudding in his ad-libs between verses and it the dance break. Roberts delivers a great deal of the evening's best comic moments, while Whitehead is appealing as the Private of whom everyone has great expectations. Starke offers solid support from the piano.

The design of OLD KIT BAG is delightfully makeshift, with the theatre painted out as a battalion station that has been hastily converted into a performance space. A blanket hung on a rod creates a changing room where sticks and bandages are transformed into marvellously entertaining props. It is to the credit of the show that the entire thing feels like it was put together by a group of well-meaning soldiers and nurses, making for a uniquely engaging theatrical experience.

OLD KIT BAG is a small show with a big heart, paying tribute to the power that music has to bring people together in times of trouble. It was great to be reminded of the songs my grandmother and her sisters used to sing to me when I was a child and I particularly enjoyed how, without teaching or preaching, the show managed to offer something of a history lesson and an anti-war sentiment to boot. It is a good old-fashioned great night out.

OLD KIT BAG will play the Rosebank Theatre (16 Alma Road in Rosebank, Cape Town) until 18 October on Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm. 3pm Saturday matinees will be staged for pensioners. Tickets cost R120, with a R60 concession for students, while the pensioners will pay R60 for the Saturday matinee performances only. Bookings are through or 074 101 5066.

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From This Author David Fick