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

FRANK & STEIN (article first published : 2005-07-7)

The entertainment starts as you arrive at the venue Ė in this case, PJís in Grahamstown. White-faced, tail-coated and silent, Chaplainesque characters move around the crowd handing out warning notices. These alert you to the fact that the producers feel that if you do not care to subject your nerves to strain, leave by the nearest exit.

At the performance I went to last night, only two people left and I doubt it was because their nerves couldnít take the strain but rather that they found the material too off the wall for their liking.

For off the wall, it certainly is. However, under Murray McGibbonís tight direction this hilarious horror spoof maintains a high level of sophistication and control. Otherwise one suspects that the combined talents of the highly innovative and imaginative cast might send the show into orbit around the sun!

Openly described as being irreverently based on the 1831 Gothic Novel by Mary Shelley, Frank & Stein was first produced in 1988. Played as a movie script, the cast at the time comprised Ellis Pearson and David Dennis with Anthony Stonier at the piano. It quickly achieved cult status and ran successfully in major cities (except Johannesburg) until 1992. It was revived again in 1996 and, this time, included a Johannesburg run. Murray McGibbon is now Professor of Theatre and Drama at Indiana University in the United States. He has returned to South Africa to revive the show, which is featured Ė as were the previous versions - on the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

The brilliance is re-born. In the Ellis Pearson and David Dennis roles are Ben Vos and John van de Ruit. Ellis and David are a tough act to follow but Ben and John bring their own energies and individuality to this madcap monster mayhem. They have proved their acting talents many times in previous productions, but this one makes much higher demands on their abilities and they sail through with flying colours.

The pace is punishing and between them they play about 12 roles, sometimes in the same conversation! I particularly loved Benís monster who is a lanky adorable maverick, his hip-swivelling Elizabeth and his moronic Fritz. Johnís elegant Frankenstein, his leg-slapping Baron and his doddery Burgermeister are a delight.

Anthony Stonier is still at the piano and playing as brilliantly as ever, despite having broken his arm about two months ago. If there are any changes in this revival, it is mainly in the musical score as Anthony has incorporated more modern numbers. As with piano scores for the silent movies, the music doesnít stop, mirroring the actions and applying lush melodies in the romantic moments. Not that there are many of these in this show! If you can possibly divide your brain into two, try to concentrate on the numbers he is playing because this adds to the comedy. If not, go and see the show twice Ė the first time to appreciate the acting, the second to listen to the music!

You can catch Frank & Stein at PJís in Grahamstown on July 8 at 16h30 and July 9 at 20h00. The production then comes to Kwasuka Theatre in Durban, opening on July 12. Book at Computicket. If you donít mind a bit of irreverence and ghoulish humour, youíll be mad to miss it. Ė Caroline Smart




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