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Miracle

Reza de Wet
Ruby in the Dust Theatre
Leicester Square Theatre Basement
(2010)

Production photo

The work of actress and dramatist de Wet is highly regarded South Africa but little known here and one wonders why, for on this evidence she is a powerful writer with a strong sense of dramatic situation. She presents us with a struggling, starving group of actors about to set up a performance of the medieval drama Everyman in a derelict, leaf-strewn church crypt (and preview performances before Christmas were given in the actual crypt of St Andrew's by Holborn Viaduct).

Designer Belle Mundi has made the tiny studio at Leicester Square Theatre seem appropriately derelict and bleak and the sincerity of the actors matches the proximity of the performance, though straining acceptance of the practicality of some of the situation. In some ways this is too real when the play is edging into a world of fantasy and allegory, though anyone with a professional involvement in theatre will have come across people as deliberately blind to the realities of a situation and living in as optimistic a fantasy as her actor-manager Du Pre appears to be.

Originally written in Afrikaans and set in a small town in South Africa, this English version has no especially South African allusions and could be set in any backwater where gossip and scandal flourish but it is not contemporary. References to the "current Depression" place it back seventy years or so, though companies like this were still to be found well into the 1950s and some actors struggling in some fringe shows today may find a certainly similarity with their own experience.

We are presented with the Actor-Manager (I am sure they would be his own capitals) played by Tim Woodward. A floppy kerchief at his neck and red spots painted at the corner of his eyes even in his daytime maquillage mark him out as very much the old style thespian and that is matched by the rich tones and flourishes of his delivery in glimpses of the performer. Susannah York is his longstanding leading lady Salome, perhaps also his wife. She is a faded beauty, shrivelled but straight-backed, temperamental and behaving like the star she claims she used to be, though conceding that a younger actress must play Juliet. That is Lenie (Kate Colebrook), a young woman picked up at a railway station when alone and homeless who fortuitously turned out to have acting talent. She plays all the other female parts while Abel (Rowan Schlosberg), a young man who left an older wife behind to run away with Lenie is the male ingénue. The only other member of the company is Antoine (Christopher Dingli) a musician who wanted to act and puts up with being treated as a dogsbody to be allowed to do so.

Now they are visiting Abel's home town. The place where Anna (Lynne Miller), the well-off woman Abel married after his family had lost their farm and everything, still lives. The back-story catches up with them but, on their beam ends now, Anna's apparent generosity seems to offer a temporary way out of their problems. Is that the miracle of the title: food appearing when they are starving? There is certainly no Lazarus-like raising from the dead although one half-expects it - for there is a death (Colebrook is a most convincing corpse for longer than seems possible). Could the miracle be the way that love survives the rows and bickering of the older couple? It is miraculous, in an ironic sense, that people will put up with such deprivation to continue being actors - though those not bitten by the bug may call it self-delusion, especially when they fail to find an audience! Perhaps, given this setting, these actors have no alternative, there is no other work to turn to, but you can find the same happening in good times too.

De Wet has created characters of a reality that you would like to know much more about each back-story. I can image an actor offered any role in this script thinking 'That's a part I can do something with!', as indeed these performers do, but director Linnie Reedman's production, rather than convincing me that the others would be carried along by Du Pre's charisma, made his impractical reasoning seem something not worked out in the writing. This is, after all, the man who is playing God but, if this play, like the medieval one, is a microcosm of the world, its allegories are not brought out. On a more direct level this becomes a play about contesting loyalties and the conflicts raised by the solutions that Anna offers .

Ends 24th January 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton