A Rather British Evening at the Phoenix

(A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Nation on 15th March 2009)

Harry Ebale and Wairimu Mwaura in Countdown
Harry Ebale and Wairimu Mwaura in Countdown

Just ended at the Phoenix Theatre, on Saturday 7th March, were three short plays by three of the most prolific, contemporary British playwrights.

The first was Window Cleaner by Gillian Plowman in which Jill (Mkamzee C. Mwatela) who has just completed a jail term for killing her husband bumps into Daryl (Nick Ndeda), a burglar caught red-handed in the house where she is cleaning windows. Jill’s positive attitude to life eventually rubs off on Daryl and the play ends with the promise of a happy relationship and life ahead.

Mwatela played her role very well and the success of the piece rested on her performance. Ndeda seemed to have concentrated too much on being ‘the tough and rough burglar’ that he forgot about the other things that bring a character to life. Oscillating between a gruff, throaty voice and his normal voice to show the ‘soft side’ of the burglar, was not enough. There is more to character than voice. A brief study of Stanislavsky’s system would have helped here.

The other two short plays were Count Down by Alan Ayckbourn and A man’s Best Friend by James Saunders.

Both these plays were part of a series of plays by various playwrights, bearing the title Mixed Doubles: An Entertainment of Marriage, first performed in London in 1969. The first play in the series was The Vicar and the last was Resting Place. The plays show the progression of marriage from its start, until death.

 A man’s best friend is the second play in the Mixed Doubles series and is about a couple on their honeymoon. Charles Ouda was the nervous groom, complete with a stutter (which really worked well) and a leg that won’t stop twitiching. Naomi Wanjiru on the other hand brought across the flirtatious and rather over-eager wife, but a little work on voice projection and diction wouldn’t have been amiss.

Wairimu Mwaura and Harry Ebale were the couple in Countdown. They were both very good and entertaining. They did not over-act by making overblown gestures, playing the clown and milking out a joke in the way many Kenyan actors tend to, yet the jokes came off very well. In an interview in 1979, Ayckbourn said, “I have a great obligation to actors to write stuff they will find satisfying” and this was clearly seen with Mwaura and Ebale.

However, I got the impression that the director, Millicent Ogutu, relied a bit too much on the fact that she had chosen good scripts and so made little effort in other aspects of the production.

In as much as we appreciate that space in theatre is versatile (one minute the stage can be a battle ground and the next, a king’s court), since from the onset Ogutu was going for the realistic style, then more could have been done to make the set of A Man’s Best Friend look more like a train compartment.

It would have also been worth putting a little more consideration into the fact that these were plays written for a British audience. Window Cleaner makes reference to asylum seekers, social services and child custody, which are all simmering socio-political issues in Britain. Mwaura and Ebale depict a British middle class couple, sitting together over a cup of tea served in expensive crockery, complaining about the missing kettle whistle and Ogutu even went to the detail of having Ebale read the Financial Times.

A question is raised here which theatre practitioners could reflect upon. To what extent should a play be adapted to its immediate audience? Could Ebale have, for example, read the Business Daily instead?

All in all, it was good entertainment, worth the evening out and a good break from the slapstick humour we usually have to contend with. 

© Anne W. Manyara 2009



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jimmy Mwangi says:

    A very succinct and honest critique of three theatrical productions.It is refreshing to see a critique that not only points out the areas that require some tweaking, but also suggests how this may be done….good stuff!!

  2. John says:

    Very piece, perhaps some light could shed into the preference for Britiish plays and not Kenya or even African ones. I do hope that the directors will take on board these criticisms, they could help shape theatre in Kenya, keep it up!

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