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Saturday, June 26, 2010


One of the highlights of this year’s National Arts Festival. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Written by Craig Higginson, directed by Malcolm Purkey and presented by the Citizens Theatre (Glasgow), Live Theatre (Newcastle upon Tyne) and Market Theatre (Johannesburg), The Girl in the Yellow Dress is one of the highlights of this year’s National Arts Festival for me.

Set in Paris, it’s all about words – or to be more precise, the proper use of words in a grammatical context. English grammar, that is. The story starts off when a young French-Congolese (Pierre) approaches a beautiful young English teacher (Celia) to help him improve his skills in English so that he can better express himself. Turns out he doesn’t really need tuition, it’s just a ruse.

White shelves filled with rows of white books double as a screen on which rows and rows of letters are displayed as we change from scene to scene. Making no sense at all, at first, they dissolve into the scene number and its subtitle – ie: Part II Narrative Tenses or Part III The Conditional.

While the play is full of academic discussion on the language itself, it is not dry but abounding with humour as the teacher/student relationship moves to a different level.

The Girl in the Yellow Dress offers superb performances from Marianne Oldham whose luminous face portrays the slightest emotion so effectively and Nat Ramabulana who impresses with his subtle mood changes and open geniality. Both characters have strength in abundance: the one steely with the simple elegance that French women seem to achieve so effortlessly, the other more robust.

As the play progresses, Celia relaxes. Her hair is let loose and soft pumps replace the power-dressing high-heeled boots. Then unanswered questions start to niggle. Are they being completely honest with each other and, if not, what motivates the falsehoods? Is there a hidden agenda on either side? Things start to go wrong. Pierre raises the race card and Celia makes her own investigations.

There is pathos, accusatory rage, defencelessness and possible reconciliation – all of which makes for good theatre. In less skilful hands, this play would not be seen to best advantage but the pooling of all the impressive resources behind it makes it a brilliant, fascinating, dramatic and very clever production. And, at the end of the day - without their hardly noticing it - audiences get better informed in the correct use of English!

Don’t miss it if it comes to a theatre near you! – Caroline Smart