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

THE CHILLI BOY (article first published : 2006-02-22)

Anyone seriously interested in taking up theatre as a career has a perfect – and highly entertaining - masterclass in town at the moment with Matthew Ribnick’s The Chilli Boy, now running at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre.

This solo tour de force performance cannot be faulted in terms of verbal dynamics, cadences, rhythms, body language and emotion control. For those who don’t need to understand how an actor utilises his skills and just wants a great evening out, book your tickets early because if the response from tonight’s audience is anything to go by, they will be at a premium.

While The Chilli Boy will obviously be better appreciated by the Indian community because of Matthew’s accurate characterisations and Bollywood impersonations, it’s a universal and accessible story that criss-crosses a number of cultures.

I first saw this thought-provoking, extremely witty and well-structured play skilfully directed by Geraldine Naidoo at the Catalina in 2004. Since then, it has tightened and smoothened considerably. The only additions are sequences introducing the central character’s fascination for Bollywood movies and their stars.

On reading my original review, I make no apologies for running most of it again, as the comments still stand:

The time is 1974, the place a poor Indian household in Umkomaas. An ageing, arthritic and toothless granny discovers a snake. Knowing that other family members will destroy it and, believing it to be the spirit of her late husband, she gathers it up and takes it outside. There, she lays it gently underneath a mango tree where, she admonishes it, it belongs.

Matthew Ribnick gives us a beautiful and accurate portrayal of this endearing character. After listening to the granny’s description of her drunken son and sickly grandson, also enacted by Matthew, the audience is then transported forward in time to Boksburg and the home of Troy, a 27 year-old with all the makings of a full-blown gangster.

Both the pride and despair of his garrulous long-suffering mother, Troy is an angry, prejudiced and misguided young man mixed up with the wrong crowd. Boastful of his breaking-and-entering prowess – although he hastens to tell us that they only steal meat because it’s expensive and also keeps the guard dogs at bay! – he has one hang-up. He can be attacked anywhere on his body but nobody must touch his face.

Of course, somebody does – a thug of note, who knocks him out. The reason? Troy has begun to act strangely: speaking in an Indian accent, taking on the physique of an elderly woman, displaying strong maternal instincts and wearing saris. The neighbourhood is talking. Mind you, they’re also buying the delicious curries and Indian delicacies that he/she is making!

What has happened is that the Indian granny has been reincarnated into Troy’s body and, for the first time in Troy’s life, he is earning an honest living! Her influence is also to have a strong effect on Troy’s future including a hair-raising trip to Durban and Umkomaas where it all started.

The script is full of beautiful gems like granny’s awe at her reincarnated skin tone: “So fair, I’m got!” and Troy’s mother’s yelled instruction to her unseen constipation-prone daughter in the toilet - “You just sit there and … RELAX!” After all, she’s just spent R400 on medication to “loosen” her up! On discovering how much they earn, she has a burning desire to send all the male members of her family out to learn to be car guards. “Make it a career day!” she urges.

With his piercing gaze, expressive hands and loose-limbed body, Matthew Ribnick is master of all his cleanly-drawn characters. He’s also pretty hot at pleating and winding a sari! He holds together with ease the dizzying interplay of characters and his interpretation of Heldon, Troy’s woollen-capped brightly smiling ingenuous side-kick, is utterly adorable. There is a brilliant exchange of character when, to Heldon’s acute embarrassment, Troy starts “talking funny” and buying spices in a shopping centre.

The Chilli Boy runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre until March 5. Performances at 20h00. Book at Computicket. Don’t miss it! – Caroline Smart

Following “The Chilli Boy” will be Matthew’s new play “Hoot”. Matthew has just won the award for Best Comedy Performance at the Naledi Awards in Johannesburg.




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