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Saturday, December 6, 2008


Amateur sleuths have a chance to solve a murder whodunit par excellence. (Review by Maurice Kort)

All amateur sleuths, here is your chance to solve a murder whodunit par excellence in a festive season play that should have full houses and beg an extended season.

What started as innovative interactive theatre in 1978, Shear Madness, a play co-authored and co-produced by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan and starring them (based on an obscure murder mystery originally titled Scherenschnitt, written by German playwright, Paul Portner) opened at the Stage II at the Charles Playhouse, Boston, United States in 1980, where it is still running, making it the world’s second longest running play (after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap) and probably America’s greatest theatrical success story.

One can fully understand why. It has subsequently been, and is being, performed in eleven different languages and in many countries and guises. Part of its charm is that it is painstakingly adapted to the life and times of the city in which the play is performed.

I was fortunate to see the play in this Boston Theatre, starring the co-author Bruce Jordan in July 1981 as well as when it was performed at the Rex Garner Theatre in Johannesburg in August 1997 when it was adapted to the South African setting and at the Duchess Theatre, London, in December 1997, where it had been renamed Scissor Happy, and had a British twist.

This is the first time it is being performed in Durban, and high time at that, by the ever ground-breaking, pioneering and innovative Durban producer/director Themi Venturas who was required to travel to the United States to be trained by the international team and briefed about the production process to ensure that this Durban production meets the international standards and that the cast have the necessary abilities. This can be fully appreciated as the play demands considerable improvisation and unscripted performance skills.

To write that Themi Venturas and the small cast of six actors have risen to the occasion is a huge understatement. The play moves at a frenetic pace and the actors are already on stage when the audience enters the theatre. You are urged to do so as soon as you arrive at the venue because there is already hilarious activity, without any dialogue as such but beautifully mimed in amazing performances by the three actors, a wonderfully camp Marc Kay as the hairdresser Tony Whitcomb who owns the unisex hair salon, Shear Madness, his assistant Daisy Spencer as Barbara De Marco and the long suffering Dhaveshan Govender as Mikey Naidoo who is having his hair washed and cut.

When the play proper starts, these three are joined by Loyiso McDonald as Nick Hlatshwayo who comes in for a shave, Michael Gritten as Eddie Lawrence, an antique dealer and Clare Mortimer, the socialite Mrs Schubert. As the play progresses, Nick turns out to be a police detective and one learns more of the personalities, characteristics and foibles of each of the characters in this very cleverly written, directed and acted play - and indeed why they are in the salon..

Although not on stage, the mystery arises when the landlady, famed veteran concert pianist Isabel Czerny, who lives above the shop, is murdered. She has been stabbed, repeatedly, with a pair of scissors. Tony Whitcomb, Barbara De Marco, Eddie Lawrence and Mrs Schubert all come under suspicion for her murder. Then suddenly Nick Hlatshwayo stops the action, asks for the house lights to come on and asks the audience for their input to become involved by questioning the actors and attempting to solve the crime. The four possible suspects have to retrace their steps, under the beady eyes of the audience to confirm that they are telling the truth. The interaction is fast and furious, with an amazing recall by the audience of the previous events. Full credit must be given to the Director and the cast as many of the roles could descend into caricatures but this does not occur.

The action continues throughout the interval with the cast, all completely in character, confined to the stage, except for the police inspector, with activity all the time. He is in the foyer obtaining questions and information from willing members of the audience, also always completely in character. (I shall forever have the memory of the policeman at the Boston performance while taking questions seeing a young boy in the group light a cigarette - this was outside the theatre in the street - being fully in character and absolutely tearing strips off him for smoking at his young age).

The script has been extremely cleverly adapted to contemporary South Africa and Durban with frequent references to current affairs and newsworthy events of the day, giving rise to much topical humour. One has to see the play to appreciate how well they have been rehearsed and how skilful they must be to adapt to the questions posed by the audience and the situations that can, and do, arise. This is also due to the very clever script and premise of the play. Each performance will therefore, by the nature of the play, be different.

The set, designed by Themi Venturas, is one of the best I have seen at the Catalina Theatre with no expense having been spared as it has entailed the need for many props etc. to cater for every eventuality in a play like this where the answers to every question from the audience have to be explained satisfactorily and substantiated by the characters in the play. Thanks are due to Schwarzkopf for additional sponsorship (to that of Rainbow Chickens and the National Arts Council of South Africa).

At an appropriate time Nick Hlatshwayo, stops the questioning and the opportunities for the audience to give their input to help craft the script and takes a vote from the audience members as to whom they consider to be the murderer. The house lights are dimmed and the play proceeds in a more serious and constructed vein. The ending of the play may therefore be different every night depending on the choice of the audience members after they have heard the clues, questioned the characters and solved the crime. (I’d love to see all four endings).

The play should not be missed. It has some of the best scripted, directed and performed theatre to hit Durban for a long time. This splendid whodunit can be seen at the Catalina Theatre, Wilson’s Wharf, until December 31, and if the usually apathetic Durban audiences rise to the occasion, the run of the play could hopefully be extended due to the full houses it deserves. – Maurice Kort