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DON’T PUT A TEAT ON THE WHISKEY BOTTLE! (article first published : 2005-09-20)

With a title like Don’t Put a Teat on the Whiskey Bottle! how can you lose? Particularly at an arts festival?

All kudos to actor John Whiteley for not only coming up with a fun title – derived directly from words of advice from his much-loved aunt – but also for presenting an amusing, endearing and highly entertaining one-man-show that reminds us of South Africa’s rich theatrical history.

Don’t Put a Teat on the Whiskey Bottle! is an articulate and humorous wander through his own life as well as the annals of South African theatre history by one of the country’s most respected and admired actors. As she moved past me to find a seat, an audience member said “I don’t want to go too far back or we won’t hear.” I couldn’t prevent myself from saying; “You won’t have a problem, ma’am. This is Johnny Whiteley. You’ll hear him anywhere in this room.” And indeed you could, properly trained as he is in the skill of voice production - something sadly missing in our education institutions today.

On Saturday when I saw the show at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival, John had to cope with the stifling heat when the temperature apparently reached 39 degrees which certainly had something to do with the fact that a woman in the front row fainted at his feet! He handled the situation with aplomb, she revived successfully and the show continued.

Seated comfortably in an armchair and clad in an elegant green velvet jacket, John took us on a condensed version of what is normally a full-length production. This performance concentrated on the earlier part of his life. Hopefully, next year, we will get to hear the second half.

Laconically announcing that he is tone deaf “something to do with the forceps” (referring to the manner of his birth), John talks of his conversion to theatre when he experienced the magic of pantomime for the first time. He spent his early days in Grahamstown before moving to Britain where he grew up in the company of legendary show business names such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe (‘so pretty, it hurt”) and Alec Guinness. Often by his side as he served canapés at family gatherings to these luminaries was Vanessa Redgrave, his childhood “sweetheart”.

Life in England was busy and productive but the call of Africa was strong. “I used to watch Westerns at the movies because the weather reminded me of South Africa,” he quips. So back he came but continued to work in both countries for a considerable length of time. He created much amusement when talking about the time he was desperate to take any job in the industry and accepted the position of dresser to the legendary Irish actor Micheál mac Liammóir who used to call him Hortense and instructed him to keep the director out of his dressing room!

Names come tumbling back from the past – Heather Lloyd-Jones, Vivienne Drummond, Taubie Kushlick, Brian Brooke and Petrina Fry. There virtually isn’t a theatre in South Africa he hasn’t performed in or anyone in the business over the age of 40 he hasn’t performed with!

If it comes your way, don’t miss Don’t Put a Teat on the Whiskey Bottle!. – Caroline Smart




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