At last, The Gruffalo has come home to Grahamstown! Based on the eponymous and extremely popular children’s book by Julia Donaldson, the first South African version of the UK stage musical features a talented, home-grown cast who are happy to be performing it at the National Arts Festival for the first time.
The Gruffalo tells the story of a mouse (played by Nombasa Ngoqo, understudied by Mandisi Heshu) who tries to avoid being eaten by various predators: a fox, an owl and a snake (all played by Sisonke Yafele, also understudied by Heshu). To scare them off, she makes up a fictional creature called the Gruffalo, a bear-buffalo hybrid, with whom she claims she is going to dine. But when the real Gruffalo – played by Ayanda Nodlwana – turns up, the mouse must use her intelligence to meet her fears head on.
“It’s awesome, the children enjoy it,” says Yafele regarding the opening performance on 29 June. “It’s so nice to see kids from the township attending [The Gruffalo] for the first time ever. They really enjoy, and engage with, the performance.”
The performance on 30 July was well-attended, although the audience mainly comprised of adults and students. The simple yet striking set design, accompanied by the backing track of harp-like sounds intermingled with bird tweets, effectively transports you into the woodland-world of the mouse and the other creatures. The costumes are equally outstanding; once Nodlwana comes bounding out onto the stage in his pelt-like ensemble, it’s as if the great big Gruffalo has really come to life. The creature’s first appearance evokes genuine amazement and delight (and a little fear), and Nondlwana – who also plays the part of the narrator – excellently transitions between acting playful and frightening in his respective roles.
Indeed, with each costume change that Yafele undergoes, the personalities of each character take over: he goes from being streetwise when he sports fox ears to employing stiff Afrikaans mannerisms when he steps into the guise of the owl. The switches between each character is simply amazing, and one cannot believe that the predators are played by the same person. Ngoqo is simply adorable as the mouse, and her engagement with a mostly grown-up audience is commendable and, especially for the children, enjoyable. You can almost feel her fears every time she engages with a predator and the Gruffalo, and all you want to do is help (and hug) her every time the mouse laments not being able to find her nut.
There’s tongue-in-cheek humour that both children and adults can enjoy (watch out for the snake and the narrator when they get up to some antics together!), and the cast’s improvised interactions with the audience are treats in itself. The only concern is that the cast’s roles demand a lot of physicality, making it difficult to discern the lyrics when they break out into song. Such physicality renders the performers a little breathless at times, and their vocals are also somewhat overwhelmed by the backing audio filtering in.
Nevertheless, the littles one – as well as the adults – are sure to enjoy The Gruffalo. The cast have certainly set the bar for those who wish to take part in future stage adaptations, and Grahamstown must be proud of the gem it has produced.
The Gruffalo continues to be performed twice-daily from 1 – 9 July at 11am and 3pm at Noluthando Hall. (Note: there are no 3pm shows on 3 July, 5 July and 9 July.)
By Nereesha Patel