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Don't underestimate Aunty Merle the Musical

2019-02-10 00:01

Aunty Merle The Musical
Joburg Theatre
R145 to R340 at webtickets.co.za
4 stars out of 5

“I’ve never seen so many coloured people in Joburg,” my coloured friend commented as we stepped into The Joburg Theatre for the third run of Mark Lottering’s popular musical comedy Aunty Merle.

I had to laugh because it was certainly the biggest coloured audience I’d seen at the theatre.

When Lottering makes something, people step out for it and for good reason. Yes, he’s funny. Yes, he’s talented. But most of all, he’s got an empathy for the human experience that makes him incredibly charming. It’s the same touch possessed by Trevor Noah. Yes, Noah does accents and talks about different races, but it rarely comes off as vindictive. Why? Because he seems to earnestly like all races, whether they’re black, white, Indian, Chinese or coloured.

Directed by theatre legend Lara Foot, who’s made some of our country’s greatest productions, including Karoo Moose and The Inconvenience of Wings, Aunty Merle places Lottering’s beloved character front-and-centre. Merle is gregarious, spicy, larger than life, a famous gossip, and is bursting with personality. Her daughter, Abigail (Tracey-Lee Oliver) is about to get married to a white man (!), ironically named Alan White (Paul du Toit), and it’s the talk of the town. Unfortunately, a shady character from Abigail’s past is set on destroying the wedding.

Fun, punchy, full of Cape coloured expressions (I’m dik! Jy lykkit! Kannala!), Merle is a testament to Lottering’s home-grown brand of comedy. But don’t underestimate this offering; Lottering and Foot manage to deftly wedge in heavy political themes between the belly laughs and catchy tunes.

One scene, for instance, sees Aunty Merle’s domestic worker Lydia’s daughter return from her studies in the UK. Nambitha (Zandile Madliwa) became “woke” during her international education and is furious that the racial inequality and poverty in South Africa only seem to have worsened while she was away. She expresses this anger by breaking up her friendship with Abigail.

“My mother spent more time with you and her “Belgravia family” than she ever did with us!” she says.

Later, one of the production’s strongest musical numbers sees Nambitha and her mother perform “I stopped dreaming long ago”, the lament of being a black woman whose economic future looks to be cleaning houses forever.

Don’t miss out on Aunty Merle. It’s fast becoming a classic.

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February 17 2019