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HISTORY OF DURBAN SUPPER THEATRE (article first published : 2007-07-22; last edited : 2007-10-15)

In December 2006, I started writing a story which was prompted a performance I attended of Book Club at the Heritage Theatre two days after the tragic death of Mervyn Goodman. Mervyn used to run the Cellar (now the Zulu Jazz Lounge) at the Playhouse with David Lloyd-Jones.

Further delving into the memory bank reminded me that it was Mervyn Goodman who introduced musical theatre into the mainstream of the already existing genre of dramatic supper theatre through the Cellar in 1985. This move spawned a chain of venues around Durban over the years including the Langoustine Theatre by the Sea, where Book Club was last performed. Without Mervyn Goodman and the artistic energy of the Playhouse Cellar, it is doubtful whether either Lango’s or Heritage Theatre would ever have existed.

The supper theatre circuit was originally initiated on a purely dramatic level at the now sadly defunct Hermit Vegetarian Restaurant, a tiny little eatery in Hermitage Street off the Esplanade, which opened in the early 1980's with Puny Little Life directed by Clive Rodel and featuring Deon van Zyl and Paul Spence. Not long after that, Garth Anderson took up the supper theatre banner with a positive energy and went on to present numerous productions at this popular venue before he opened the now-also-defunct Our House Theatre on May 19, 1980, in the old Savoy Hotel Building next to Bryanston Heights on Berea Road.

At the same time as the Playhouse Cellar opened with Piaf: No Regrets starring Judy Page, Jo-Ann Pezzaro and Mike Huff in 1985, the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre Bistro opened with An Evening with Jacques Brel and went on to produce more than 20 supper theatre shows in a Sunday night series entitled Sunday at Six. Some of the pioneering supper theatre shows mainly staged by the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre company were: A Victorian Music Hall directed by Jilian Hurst which was then done by the Cellar, A Twist Of Lennon which was later to be turned into a mainstage production, That’s Life; Into The Souls Of Things which was restaged at the Cellar with Peter Gardner as the narrator; The Al Jolson Story starring Bradley Mart and directed by Brenda Radloff; The Andrews Blisters a tribute to the Andrews Sisters; The War Years which was later restaged at 216 St Thomas Road; the Gee Jays’ first professional gig, Christmas Crackers, You don’t have to be Irish, Sweet Nothings and many more.

A few years ago, the entertainment world noted the tragic passing of Steve Morris who was found murdered in his Prince Street apartment. Steve Morris could also be considered one of the trailblazers of Durban’s supper theatre. In 1992, he opened a venue called Café Paris Paris in what was then the Standard Bank Arcade off West Street. Peter Gardner and I launched the venue with Nuts and Nonsense, a compilation of sketches by the late Robert Kirby who passed away in February this year. James Ngcobo, who went on to national fame and who appears in a popular television sitcom, also performed there. When Cafe Paris Paris was demolished to make way for commercial development, Steve moved to Westville where he opened El Guappo’s next to Game and launched his supper theatre programme with Lashes, Lipsynch & Lasagne directed by Steven Roche.

Steve Morris eventually sold the venue to Kathy Kirkpatrick. It changed hands some years later and finally closed but not before it had hosted performers such as the GeeJays, De Wet Wraight, Linda Vargas, Norraine Swanby, Debbie and Vincent Hathway, Karen Campbell-Gillies, Richard Hose, the Comedy Games Team (Judy Solomon, Nic Rujevic and Patrick Kenny) and Michael Evans. Popular entertainer Damien McIlroy launched his first solo show at El Guappo.

Another supper theatre venue which opened in this period was 218 St Thomas Road, which sadly had to close because residents in the area complained about the noise. The first production there was Staying Alive in 1996 and it went on to stage The King And Us, Cantina Tequila and others. Even the Glenwood Old Boys Club in Durban North hosted a certain number of supper theatre productions, among them the popular Jamaican Jam.

The Limelight Theatre in Umhlanga only lasted about a year after opening with West End Web, followed by Let Yourself Go the magic follies show devised by Denise Britz and Themi Venturas, and Staying Alive. It has since re-opened as the Stars Showbar.

In 1999, the Langoustine Theatre by the Sea (Lango’s) launched its first production with Not The Full Monty from the irrepressible Gee Jays and this venue was to become one of the stalwarts of the supper theatre scene for many years, before it closed to make way for property development. It also catapulted Gary McKenzie of the GeeJays from performer to producer.

O’Hagan’s Supper Stage in Durban North also entered the arena and the first production there was the ever-popular Good Vibrations. Another venue was The Boardwalk adjacent to the Durban Exhibition Centre. Run by Jackie Cunniffe, now director of the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre, its first production featured Joseph Clark and Tim Wells. Roland Stansell started the Spencer's supper club at the Hotel Winston in 1993 which ran for a year, presenting productions such as Danielle Pascal and Coffee and Cream. All three venues have since closed.

The Royal Hotel then decided to utilise the area in the basement floor of the hotel as a supper theatre venue called The Backstage which would benefit trainee chefs and waiters although this venue has since closed. When Gateway was finally completed The Barnyard Theatre moved in and continues to operate successfully, offering a range of musical shows from the Barnyard national circuit. Then came the Heritage Theatre at the attractive Heritage Market in Hillcrest. Run by Gary McKenzie, it opened with its first production, The Loser in April 2005 and is still going strong!

All this time, Roland Stansell (Spencer’s supper club) hadn’t been idle. Along with his colleagues in The Family Players, a pro-active group of performers who had been doing shows at old age homes for many years, he teamed up with the MOTH organisation in Umbilo. They drew up a mutually beneficial agreement to host productions at the Rhumbelow Hall, now known as the Rhumbelow Theatre which opened with Tipsy Tarts Follies on June 29, 2001. Through The Family Players’ efforts, this venue has now been fitted with improved lighting and backstage facilities – as well as air-conditioning!

In 2003, Stuart Mey opened his Dockyard Theatre, undoubtedly the most attractively placed venue as it was situated at the entrance to the harbour. As they ate or relaxed outside, patrons could observe the water traffic which ranged from massive container tankers to sleek yachts moving past. Sadly, this venue had to make way for the Waterfront development but, nothing daunted, Stuart simply moved up the Berea and is now firmly entrenched in Musgrave Centre facing Musgrave Road. It may not have the view but it still has the vibe!

What would supper theatre have been without the adult pantomimes that started in the Cellar and continued for five seasons before moving to Lango’s, then the Royal Backstage and recently seen at the Catalina for the second year running? Now run by Sue Clarence Productions, all ten pantos have featured Peter Court and Anthony Stonier.

“I think that during the hey-days of supper theatre in Durban - we (Durban) became the leader of the pack nationally,” says top Durban award-winning publicist, Illa Thompson. “We were at the forefront of the concept of supper theatre and started the trend countrywide. The Cellar led the way with this and played host to some theatrical luminaries in its heyday. It was "the" place to be and I for one was tremendously grateful that I could be part of that special time. The Barnyard concept rode on the wave of a musical theatre and music revue formula that we (the Durban theatre community) created. The successful franchise should raise its hat to people like Mervyn Goodman.” – Caroline Smart




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