Putting some pantsula into veins of ‘Gruffalo’

The sky is the limit for a group of talented township actors who have been cast in a world famous play based on a popular children’s book.

The all-Grahamstown cast told David Macgregor they could not wait to strut their stuff at the African debut of The Gruffalo at The Fringe Festival in Cape Town later this month.

They may not have heard of The Gruffalo before they were asked to audition, but this has not stopped the four local actors from reaching for the stars after scoring the highly sought-after roles in the West End smash-hit.

Successfully franchised around the world after making its London stage debut more than a decade ago, the heartwarming children’s play will make its continental debut at the Cape Town Fringe Festival which runs from September 22 until October 8 before touring the rest of the country.

MONSTER FUN: ‘The Gruffalo’ understudy Mandisi Heshu and mouse character Nombasa Ngoqo get their costumes fitted by design supervisor Illka Louw Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR
MONSTER FUN: ‘The Gruffalo’ understudy Mandisi Heshu and mouse character Nombasa Ngoqo get their costumes fitted by design supervisor Illka Louw Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR

Nombasa Ngoqo, who plays the mouse, yesterday said she never dreamt that a group of “kasi” actors from tiny Grahamstown would scoop all the roles in such a critically acclaimed play.

“It came as a shock,” the 28-year-old admitted. “There are not many opportunities for actors in Grahamstown, compared to the big cities, to get involved in something as huge as this. I am very excited.”

Ngoqo, who is the mother of a young child, said even though she dreamt of being an actor from childhood, her family was poor and she could never afford to go to university.

Undeterred, she signed up for the acclaimed Rhodes University Ubom! Theatre Company eight years ago, and has never looked back.

Like the other members of The Gruffalo cast, Ngoqo got a taste of big-time acting in acclaimed National Arts Festival plays such as Waterline and Falling off the Horn that put local Grahamstown issues like water shortages and xenophobia onto centre stage.

Although the South African rights to the smash children’s play have been highly sought-after by South African theatre companies for years, they were recently given to the NAF.

GET YOUR GRUFF ON: Besides using local actors, all the costumes and props are currently being made in Grahamstown using strict designs from the UK. Pictured is the Gruffalo and mouse from a UK production of ‘The Gruffalo’ Picture: TALL STORIES
GET YOUR GRUFF ON: Besides using local actors, all the costumes and props are currently being made in Grahamstown using strict designs from the UK. Pictured is the Gruffalo and mouse from a UK production of ‘The Gruffalo’ Picture: TALL STORIES

Festival CEO Tony Lankester last week said it took two years to set up the South African theatre deal and that plans were already afoot to put on a Xhosa production next year.

He said although the temptation existed to use big theatre companies in Johannesburg or Cape Town, they chose Grahamstown as part of the NAF’s “Creative City” vision for the town.

Besides using local actors, all the costumes and props are being made in Grahamstown using strict designs from the UK.

Despite having to follow set and costume rules to the tee, Lankester said he had no doubt that using South African actors would give it unique Mzansi flair and charisma that “would put some pantsula into the veins of The Gruffalo”.

The cast, who are all involved in the European Union-funded Makana Arts Academy partnership the NAF has set up, also includes Ayanda Nondlwana, who plays The Gruffalo “monster”, and Sisonke Tafele who plays a range of predators.

Young up-and-coming actor Mandisi Heshu, 23, has been roped in as understudy to Ngoqo’s mouse character as well as the predators and is ready to step in if any other players fall ill.

“I never knew anything about The Gruffalo before I saw a video of the show from England at the auditions.

“It looked like a real challenge because it is different to the South African style, but challenges are what artists strive for and I am very happy to have a part in it.”

Mandisi said being involved in a play of such international renown was a perfect springboard for Grahamstown actors to showcase their skills on the big national stage.

“We want to prove ourselves and show others that we can do it, it is a great opportunity to explore our skills as actors.”

Unable to afford to go to university to follow his passion to become a dancer and actor, 34-year-old Ayanda Nondlwana of Fingo Village says he is glad his dreams are finally coming true.

“I hope this is the opening scene for bigger things for us in our lives and future, we want to make this show ours by putting an African flavour to it.”

Expecting the play to become a big local hit, Lankester told Nondlwana to practice signing autographs as The Gruffalo “because there are going to be lots of children lining up with copies of the book for you to sign”.

Adapted for stage from the wildly popular picture book, The Gruffalo was written in 1999 by Julia Donaldson with illustrations by Axel Scheffler.

Unlike most struggling actors who scratch for their salaries based on ticket sales, Lankester said The Gruffalo players will be paid a monthly wage for their work in the production.

He said the play had become so popular in places like Australia that there was a full time cast that travelled the country performing it.

ROARING TIME: From left, Mandisi Heshu, Ayanda Nondlwana, Nombasa Ngoqo and Sisonke Tafele prepare for the launch of ‘The Gruffalo’ this month Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR
ROARING TIME: From left, Mandisi Heshu, Ayanda Nondlwana, Nombasa Ngoqo and Sisonke Tafele prepare for the launch of ‘The Gruffalo’ this month Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR

According to Lankester the play had the potential to become a huge hit in South Africa and plans are afoot to run it during the Christmas season in Cape Town.

Adapted for stage worldwide by UK-based Tall Stories, the hit musical boasts a catchy score with original music and lyrics.

The South African production will be directed by Tara Notcutt and will feature all the characters, songs and storyline from the smash hit West End production, with a uniquely local feel.

According to Notcutt, the next stage of the production’s life will be a Xhosa version of the book and play in early 2017.

“We’re hoping that The Gruffalo will propel some great new talent onto the national stage – while introducing audiences to the magic and fun of one of Britain’s best-loved characters,” she said.

Notcutt said while the South African production would remain true to the West End storyline, production, script and characters, it is expected that large doses of charisma, energy and flair from the cast will make the Grahamstown version unique, and heighten its appeal to local audiences.

“The Gruffalo has universal appeal as a story and the stage version is a proven success worldwide.

“We’re taking that framework and making the characters instantly recognisable to young South Africans, putting them in a familiar context and taking ownership of the story,” Notcutt said. — davidm@dispatch.co.za

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