Life, etc

THEATRE REVIEW: Aunty Merle the Musical: Silly, saucy and brilliant

As a stand-up comedian, Marc Lottering delivers wry and often wicked social commentary, with his sharp mind and delightful enthusiasm making a potent combination.

Marc Lottering dons the costume of Aunty Merle, the alter-ego he created to bring the Cape community to colourful life. That’s never been my favourite part of his routine, so a full-length musical devoted to Aunty Merle seemed like over-egging the lemon meringue that she’d inevitably be baking.

My doubts were utterly wrong. Lottering has written a wonderful, warm-hearted show peppered with hilarious one-liners. It’s a brilliant combination of silly and saucy, rippling with naughty but nice innuendos and plenty of comic patter about our latest political shenanigans.

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Lottering worked with Tarryn Lamb to create the songs, and on the way, they devised an in-depth background for every character. The first hint that this is a very special piece of work comes quickly, when Tankiso Mamabolo as Lydia, Merle’s domestic helper, unleashes her powerful voice to sing Someone Else, lamenting the roving eye and other bodily parts of her cheating husband.

A crumbling marriage is just one of many different elements woven into the plot, giving it way more depth than the initial storyline implies.

We meet Merle, the aspirational aunty with her neat house in the suburbs, just after her daughter Abigail has got engaged to her white boyfriend, Alan. Meanwhile, Merle’s son Carl (Anzio September) is coming to terms with being gay, and Lydia’s daughter Nambitha (Zandile Madliwa) has returned from London with eyes freshly opened to South Africa’s inequalities that saw her mother spend more time raising her employer’s children than her own.

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These sub-plots give the musical admirable depth and social relevance, plus plenty of launchpads for Lottering’s clever wit. A strong blend of moods and tensions keeps the plot flowing nicely, although the dark secret that threatens to derail the wedding doesn't feel dark enough in these liberal times.

There’s an excellent rapport among the actors, especially between Lottering and Carmen Maarman as Soraya, the disher-upper of meaty pies and even meatier gossip.

This is a power-packed cast, and Carl’s friend Siya, (Sizwesandile Mnisi) gives you goosebumps when he sings Be Who You Are. Tracey-Lee Oliver as Abigail also has a belter of a voice, with the music accompanied by some entertaining dance moves.

The 21 original songs carry the story forward, make you laugh or hit you with their poignancy. One funny gem is The Way To His Heart Is Through Your Tart, while Don’t Call Me Ouma also gets you chuckling, sung with middle-aged dread meets desire by Gina Shmukler as the mother of the groom.

[caption id="attachment_230851" align="alignnone" width="1400"] Image supplied.[/caption] The sheer volume of material makes Aunty Merle a long show, but the only part that feels ripe for cutting is Neighbours, a song that doesn’t meet the impressive standard of the rest.

Lara Foot directs this funny, infectious brew with aplomb, keeping everything taut and professional. It’s a large cast of 14 plus a seven-piece band, and the set by Patrick Curtis works perfectly, with a space that gets filled by revolving scenery to one side and Merle’s double-storey home on the other.

The show is deliciously funny precisely because this is Lottering fannying around in a frock – put a woman in the role and it would crumble. That doesn’t make it any less of great production, but it limits its longevity to Lottering’s own appetite and curbs its travelling potential. It’s already had successful runs in Cape Town and is in Joburg for the first time, drawing a suitably mixed-race audience. The programme helpfully offers a glossary to translate some Cape colloquialisms, which made sure I didn’t miss out on too many belly laughs from a lingo rich with spicy inflexions.

While Lottering holds the show together he certainly isn’t the only strength, and some of the songs are powerful enough to survive alone.

What’s also notable is how his script freely shares the limelight. It would have been easy to have written it as a personal showcase, but this displays a generosity of spirit that Merle herself would be proud of. DM

Aunty Merle the Musical runs at Joburg Theatre until 3 March. Tickets from Webtickets or www.joburgtheatre.com

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