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HOOT (article first published : 2006-03-8)

If you thought The Chilli Boy produced a demanding enough performance from Matthew Ribnick, stand by for Hoot in which he plays about 20 characters!

Following directly after the run of The Chilli Boy at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, Hoot is also written and directed by Geraldine Naidoo. It tells the tale of one Harold Potgieter who lives in a formerly genteel suburb of Johannesburg which is suddenly shattered by two events that disturb the calm and quiet of the neighbourhood.

A hawker sets up a rickety stall over the road, offering sweets, chips, single “loose” cigarettes and a phone kiosk. Then the old Italians, who offered a good dining ambience in their restaurant next door, sell to Indians and the venue becomes a late-night dive with vehicles driving all over Harold’s carefully-manicured pavement area and acts of loud al fresco copulation disturb the previously peaceful night air.

Added to Harold’s woes are the fact that his business is in bad shape with his staff being poached by bigger companies, his shopaholic cigarette-smoking wife Kim is complaining that the credit cards have been withdrawn - causing her much embarrassment among her socialite friends – and the cars have been repossessed. Next thing, Kim leaves him- having sold all the furniture and his house is attached by the bank.

Having pawned his expensive watch for a mere R550, he ends up in a seedy sub-divided flat where his former high-flying lifestyle takes a dramatic spiral into mild chaos. A diverse number of characters live in this small space and among them is a small boy who follows him around with a steady stare and eventually learns to say his name! Another beautifully-drawn character is the woman who teaches him how to wash clothes properly!

Harold eventually gets a job working nightshift at a garage and this is where he is introduced to the taxi trade and its characters. Drivers he comes to know include the volatile Distance who is fed-up with his unfaithful girlfriend and is now looking for one who knows Jehovah and not one who knows Hansa! A simple hat over the eyes and dangling arms is all we need to identify this character. A beanie and inane grin produces the amiable Mduduzi who wants to be anything from a supervisor at Checkers to a Formula 1 driver.

Observing the raw energy and money-spinning capacity of the industry, Harold offers his services as a driver. However, even though he has an Advanced BMW driver’s licence, nothing prepares him for the demands of driving a taxi!

Geraldine Naidoo’s scripting is excellent and creates hugely amusing situations while drawing on much pathos at other times. Her closing of the play is delightful. It’s a true South African scenario and Matthew moves comfortably between English, Afrikaans, isiZulu and Xhosa, offering catch phrases which bring a hilarious response from his audience. His accents are accurately produced and we get to see him do a nifty dance act.

He virtually provides his own vocal backing tracks and we hear his pleasing singing voice as he warbles through opera, Italian ballads and Bollywood numbers. It is little wonder he recently won the award for Best Comedy Performance at the Naledi Awards in Johannesburg.

Comparisons are always odious but as the two plays have been performed back to back, it is impossible not to look at one and not the other. While The Chilli Boy has been honed over the years, Hoot is still a fairly new production. However, while it has yet to reach the former’s compactness and clearly defined lines, it is a much more thought-provoking and multi-layered piece. It deals with issues that affects one and all, as does the taxi industry itself – whether you are a driver, pedestrian or passenger. After seeing the show, I guarantee you will look at taxi drivers with different eyes!

Hoot runs for 75 minutes without interval at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre until March19. If the capacity audiences for The Chilli Boy are anything to go by, early booking is essential at Computicket or on 083 915 8000. – Caroline Smart




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