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Anansi: an African Fairy Tale

Lisa Cagnacci
Wild Shrews
Southwark Playhouse
(2010)

Anansi production photo

The stories about Anansi the Spider are part Caribbean culture but before that they were an African tradition, probably originating with the Ashanti people of what is now called Ghana and that is where this telling of Anansi stories is set.

Mike Lee's set design can't hope to actually raise the temperature in the Southwark tunnels but, despite the winter chill outside, the yellow floor cloth, with a pattern drawn on in red and green, feels like a burst of tropical sunshine and, with bolts of colourful fabrics covering the audience seating, it already creates an African ambiance, even without the picture book cloths and ground row that suggest a Duanier Rousseau jungle.

Like any good African storyteller the company begin with the traditional manta, "We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true, A story, a story: let it come, let it go" presented in song and dance to Timon Wapenaar's delightful African-influenced score that sets the mood for the whole show.

The main story is that of how Anansi gets the great sky god Nyame (voice by Andy Serkis) to share with earth's people the stories that he has been keeping to himself by completing the seeming impossible tasks he sets her (Anniwaa Buachie - this Anansi is a female spider): to bring him a terrible toothed leopard, a swarm of hornets whose bite brings up balloons of swellings and a fairy whom no-one has ever seen.

Alongside this we have the story of Akua (Vanessa Sampson) whose mother (Lynette Clarke) is trying to find her a husband, how she is tricked by a nasty snake pretending to be a person (Toussaint Meghie), how she saves her mother from death by snake bite and meets another therapeutic snake who is not what he seems (Msimsi Affoierbach-Diamini).

The whole company give lively performances packed with personality, not only singing but playing guitar, drums and other percussion, and there is some very effective doubling: Affoierbach-Diamini is particularly engaging and even manages to appear as seven different suitors in rapid succession, Clarke is the flighty fairy as well as the devoted mum and Meghie is Leopard Osebo, bad snake Vipro and a villager. At different times they all help to narrate the story in speech or song.

Sometimes a song or scene goes an a little longer than is needed; that slows things down but at the same time may help reinforce the telling for the younger members of the audience (the company suggest the play is suitable for six years of age and older), and youngsters generally love repetitions anyway.

The script and the writer as director deliberately reflect the traditional opening. These villagers have never known stories but they know they want them and when Anansi has to climb to the very top of the tallest tree one of the villagers even mentions Spiderman. One feels these Ashanti villagers, were it not for their colourful clothing, could as easily be citizens of Bermondsey or Southwark; the actors give each character a vitality and freshness that makes them very real. At two hours and a quarter this show is perhaps a little long for the youngest but there is an interval to ease things. I certainly enjoyed it and it is a very long time since I was six!

Ends 8th January 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton