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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

POPCORN (article first published : 2000-05-18)

International top notch writer Ben Elton is best known in South Africa for his scripts for The Thin Blue Line and as co-writer for Black Adder, both television series starring the inimitable Rowan Atkinson. But don’t expect the same kind of off-the-wall low-key humour from his violent black comedy Popcorn, which is the play chosen by Greg King to launch his new KickstArt theatre company. The comedy is dark – very dark – in fact, the number of the dead at the final curtain closely rivals that of Hamlet, which was running at Kwasuka before Popcorn opened! It deals with manic violence, severed ears, snorting coke, a gallon or so of stage blood and guns galore

Putting in a highly impressive performance and walking off with the show’s acting honours was Michael Gritten as the manic misfit Wayne. His was a performance of consistently sustained energy and sexuality with lightning reflexes and blazing lunacy. As his sidekick Scout, Belinda Henwood gave Michael a run for his money. This is not an easy part. Scout is a highly complex female, alternating between a dimwitted collector of magazine trivia and a prissy miss flaunting pretensions of gentility while her kittenish charm hides a deadly sting.

Tim Wells gives a good account of Bruce Delamitri, a successful director of violent movies who suddenly finds himself confronted with a scene that could have been drawn from one of his own scenarios as the Mall Murderers (Wayne and Scout) invade his home and turn his comfortable lifestyle into a savage nightmare. Another good performance comes from Catherine Farren as his boozy, money-grabbing harridan of a wife who makes sure that she always looks good for the cameras, whatever the situation.

Her usual blonde hair turned a dramatic dark brown for this part, Belinda Harward plays the ambitious starlet Brooke Daniels. While she is better known as a Playboy centrefold, Brooke constantly asserts – even in the throes of death – that she is an “actress”. The scene where she performs a seductive dance to an astounded Delamitri is highly amusing and well handled by both actors.

Philippa Savage is the Delamitri’s shop-aholic daughter who finds herself caught up in more than her parents’ divorce and Richard Swift plays the producer who cannot understand why his star director is more concerned about the needs of his two strange visitors than with the fact that his Oscar win has not found favour with the all-powerful Hollywood press.

Greg King makes a stage appearance along with Heather Barclay-Whiffin as the camera crew Wayne has granted permission to film the hostage drama, provided that they are stripped to their underwear. My dear departed mother always insisted that her underwear was in mint condition in case she should “ever have to go to hospital in a hurry”. One wonders how many TV film crews would be wearing underwear so pristine white and flattering as that worn by the Popcorn TV crew, but that’s just a niggle!

The line-up before the final curtain provides Ben Elton’s satirical dig at a society generally out for gain. Each cast member tells of his or her fate, reeling off potential lawsuits as relations or associates look to find someone or something to blame for the tragedy and violence while making money in the process.

Popcornwon the Laurence Olivier award for Best New Comedy and played on London’s West End to great success several year’s back but the play does have its faults. It’s over-wordy and often predictable but Greg King has done a fine job in producing a top class piece of theatre. His set is excellent, featuring a massive poster of a comic strip and an elegant staircase as well as a load of fascinating kitsch décor such as wax lamps, leather chairs and fish floating in air bubbles in a tall lamp.

I wasn’t able to attend the opening night so went instead to a performance full of “real people” - those that pay for their tickets! And who make up the statistics of whether a production succeeds or fails. If the fact that the theatre was virtually full on a Wednesday night and the age of the average audience member was 25 is anything to go by, Greg has succeeded in his aim already.

The play provides a major challenge from all aspects. KickstArt has no subsidy or sponsorship although friends in the theatre industry have been highly generous in offering services for nothing or next to nothing and the cast are working on a profit share basis. Why? Because they believe in Greg’s firm determination to bring Durban audiences back to live theatre.

Popcorn is definitely not for the fainthearted but I urge you to support this new group with all the energy you can muster. It runs at Kwasuka Theatre until June 11 at 19h30. Book at Computicket.




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