News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Sunday April 21st 2019

The unbearable burden of being a barnstormer

Pierre Malherbe and Mark Elderkin contribute their excellent performances to Champ.

Pierre Malherbe and Mark Elderkin contribute their excellent performances to Champ.


The apparently willful ignorance of salaried accountants regarding South African Revenue Service legislation pertaining to freelancers had me so riled that I resorted to relieving my impotent rage by trolling inspirational quotes posted on Facebook by well-meaning friends.

Bitching about it later in the day, I was swiftly brought to earth by my housemate’s casual observation that dealing with debt collection is simply part of a freelancer’s working life.

Which was the pragmatic equivalent of the Buddhist mantra that to accept that life is difficult results in taking such difficulties in your stride, or at the very least, not being surprised by them.

If playwright Louis Viljoen aimed to illustrate any moral through Champ (which I doubt), that may have been it. A moral hammered home to disillusioned characters Melvin (Mark Elderkin), Elliot (Nicholas Pauling) and Stanley (Oliver Booth) in a ball-breaking malevolent monologue by Jenny Stead in her terrifying appearance as the über-bitch manager of the shopping centre in which the actors are contracted to wear bear suits and sing and dance for the entertainment of children.

The disaffection of drama graduates (UCT nogal) having to wear animal costumes in a shopping mall makes for rich comedic pickings, as well as opening up great graphic design opportunities for the programme.

But under Viljoen’s pen, the comedy takes a dark hue, which is what makes Champ so entertaining.

27 Days into their 32-day contract, the actors have suffered about as much daily humiliation and casual abuse at the hands of unsympathetic children as they can take. And then they meet Beelzebub as a six-year-old.

The high-faluting language employed by Hamlet wannabes in order to polish a turd, the results of puerile fury, the embarrassing secrets and hidden motivations revealed when the blood is up and the chips are down all take place in the bears’ grotty ‘green room’, which is also the architectural arsehole of that vacuous soul-destroying manifestation of capitalist culture, the shopping mall.

The walls of their retreat are indeed green. The exact same green one can expect to find in the rear, air conditioning-duct dominated refuse spaces of such monuments to consumerism. Designer Julia Anastasopoulos has their room perfectly rendered in photographic precision, down to the rust stains spilling down the wall below the corroded air duct joins.

While Champ is the kind of play that brings joy to the heart of the cynic, with great performances by the cast – Pierre Malherbe gets the narcissistic costume designer Waldo down pat – the characters were unnecessarily overwrought.

The malevolence contained in the script may have been better illustrated had director Greg Karvellas reined the frenticism in somewhat.

Hysteria can be funny. Then it becomes tiresome.

Some things also take on a darker shade when they are spoken calmly.

But there were scenes that were perfect, which is a rare and wonderful thing to see in theatre. I do not want to give away too much by saying which scenes these were, but let’s just say that revenge as a dish served hot can lead to indigestible guilt and nauseous self-loathing.

Champ is the excellent culmination of an idea conceived in a situation not dissimilar to the one set out in the play but a slower stroke of the director’s hand could assist in nudging it toward a more satisfying denouement. — Steve Kretzmann

Champ is on at the The Fugard Theatre Studio until May 4. It won the 2012 Fleur du Cap Award for best new script.


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