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THE RED COAT TALES (article first published : 2002-12-11)

Running at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre until December 31, The Red Coat Tales comes with impeccable accreditation. It is written by award-winning actress and director Belinda Harward and features Peter Court, Clare Mortimer, Darren King, Neil Coppen, Tessa Denton, Belinda Chapman, Adhir Kalyan, Joel Zuma, Hlengiwe Lushaba and others. Also appearing are talented children from five top Durban dance studios.

Musical director is Dawn Selby; choreography is by Coral Chamberlain with stage and set design by Clare Mortimer and Peter Court who has also designed the costumes. Lighting design is by Michael Broderick.

It is proudly, joyously and most commendably, a purely Durban story. However, while on the whole an enjoyable production with some utterly delightful sections, I think Belinda Harward has tried to produce a script that is too academic. The concept is somewhat sophisticated, dealing with a humble circus tailor who finds that his lot in life is unbearable despite a loving and caring wife and sells his soul for power. Said wife stays loyal and true, albeit incredibly, and with the help of her friend the magician proves that good can triumph over evil.

Taking the honours for their vigorous performances are Adhir Kalyan (in enormous turban), an endearing Neil Coppen and Peter Court. I was delighted to see the latter imbuing the character of Paracelsus with his considerable performance skills – not the least, hoofing it up in a song and dance routine! Stacey Taylor was able to remind audiences of her ability to sing and dance and Joel Zuma’s singing voice continues to impress, although he seriously needs to address his diction.

Clare Mortimer and Peter Court’s set is a fantastical mix of velvet drapes, hanging dressing-room mirrors, rocking horses and flying ropes and ladders. A skilfully disguised video screen plays clips of archival material covering the early days of Durban. The costumes range from the humorous and suitably amusing (sheep) to the glamorous (Stacey Taylor) and the deliciously outrageous (Darren King).

What possibly disturbed me most is that the show didn’t achieve its full potential. Tighter direction was needed. Scenes weren’t sufficiently developed and not enough use was made of the available material, particularly the delightful Belinda Chapman who is a small and highly capable powerhouse of talent. Clare Mortimer, normally seen in more dramatic roles, needed a wider and more dynamic scope for her character. Darren King is full of bounce and fun but could have had a much meatier role to play – and I would have preferred it set in his normal voice range.

The storyline involves certain “journeys” as the characters go back into the past – landing, albeit briefly, in scenarios such as a beauty contest in the heydays of stores like Greenacres or the Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg in 1910. I often felt that the lighting wasn’t focused enough and one particular “journey” took place in the dark where it would have been more effective to spotlight the characters and black everything else out rather than let the actors disappear into the blackness.

Having said all this, on the night I attended the young audience responded with delight to the antics on stage and were captivated from the very start. In the end, despite what people like me can say, they provide the benchmark. If they enjoy it, the show’s working- and working well. A lot of time and effort has gone into The Red Coat Tales and the producers are to be commended for taking the courageous step of putting on an original – and therefore unknown - show of this size over the festive season.

The Red Coat Tales has the capacity to be highly successful and create new avenues for the exploration of theatre. It runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from November 27 to December 31. Performances Tuesdays and Thursdays at 19h00 and Sundays at 18h00 (tickets R45); Fridays and Saturday at 19h30 (tickets R58), and matinee performances on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 14h00 (tickets R30).– Caroline Smart




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