Spagnoletti’s latest too much of a good thing

Spagnoletti’s latest too much of a good thing

SHOW: Special Thanks to Guests from Afar

Nicholas Spagnoletti’s ‘Special Thanks to Guests from Afar’ is the shot in the arm the eighth Artscape Spring Drama Season so desperately needed. After the twin catastrophes that were Amy Jephta’s ‘Other People’s Lives’ and Louis Viljoen’s ‘Champ’, this season was seriously flirting with being hands down the worst on record, but ‘Special Thanks’ has done a rather nice redeeming job.

That’s not to say that Spagnoletti’s latest effort is faultless. The play could have done with a more ruthless inner editor on the part of its author, or at least better advising in the backrooms of Artscape. It also appears to be too in love with its characters; there are times when their verbosity grates on one, something a pause here and there, or simply having cut back would have prevented, but that is something I am more than willing to forgive, especially considering the new plays we have been exposed to in the last few months and what those works say about our new generation of theatre scribes.

As ‘London Road’ demonstrated and ‘Special Thanks’ now affirms, Spagnoletti has a real talent for creating compelling and layered characters, and he is rather handy with a word or two as well. This is important since the previously mentioned Spring Drama Season writers and their contemporary, Gabriella Pinto, failed so spectacularly in these areas in their own plays. (Pinto was responsible for ‘Chickens’, the inexplicable winner of the Imbewu Trust’s inaugural SCrIBE Scriptwriting competition. The production was staged at Magnet Theatre and directed by Tara Notcutt.)

Those young, or at least new writers appear so beholden to their overarching concepts and conceits on “modern living” they want to convey that they seem to have forgotten to provide the paying public with characters that had any dimensions, or were even memorable. All three actors in ‘Special Thanks’ have plenty to work with and give dimension to in their roles, and one actor in particular leaves a lasting impression.

In the play, two South African friends who haven’t seen each other in years are reunited at a wedding in a small resort town on the Baltic coast in the former East Germany. Luke (Nicholas Dallas) is a gay Economics professor from UCT; Thabisa (Chi Mhende) is a Zürich-based banking executive and the daughter of a struggle hero.

They arrive a day early by mistake and meet the attractive, sexually ambiguous brother of the groom, Markus (Gideon Lombard), a German physiotherapist who takes regular assignments abroad with Médecins Sans Frontières. Over the weekend the three chat, grumble, get drunk, fight, tickle (yes, indeed, and it is one of the highlights of the show) laugh and generally wonder about the strange nature of friendship and where they find themselves in their separate lives.

The cast form a likeable bunch and the actors dig into their roles with relish, perhaps too much relish at times. On opening night they weren’t quite on the same wavelength, with Mhende in particular seemingly allowed by director Matthew Wild to be as overpowering as she liked. During the moments where they did come together, you could feel something special taking form. As Megan Furniss has said on her blog, “These delicious actors are going to have a ball, the minute they realise that this production works,” and I agree with her.

That being said, Lombard was already giving off sparks on opening night despite the uneven tone and might be a strong candidate for supporting player of the year.
I’m looking forward to seeing this production again before it finishes its run, but I do hope that Wild applies a stronger hand on proceedings. If that happens, we might have another gem on our hands by the time of the last few performances.

* Book at Computicket.

DIRECTOR: Matthew Wild
CAST: Nicholas Dallas, Chi Mhende and Gideon Lombard
VENUE: Artscape Arena until November 24
REVIEW: PETER TROMP