If it’s beginning to feel like the world’s moving too fast and there’s just no way you’ll be able to keep up with what the kids are up to these days, spare a thought for the intrepid Aunty Merle.
Not only does Athlone’s favourite matriarch (played with much joy and tenderness by Marc Lottering) have to deal with a husband (Royston Stoffels) recovering from a heart attack and stay in touch with children she only gets to see on Zoom calls, the poor woman’s in for a nasty shock when the pandemic’s full effects finally hit her on a personal level. And she has to learn a TikTok dance!
In AUNTY MERLE: THINGS GET REAL you get a raucous glimpse into the lives of Aunty Merle and her friends and family. You'll be treated to non-stop quips courtesy of Lottering and the rest of the cast from the moment that striking yet tasteful pair of red shoes struts on to the stage.
The show takes a valiant stab at digesting society’s recent shared experiences. Merle complains about having needed to get her eyes tested after attending so many Zoom funerals, while the music starts alluding to recent global events from the very first number, ‘Can You Believe (that We’re Still Standing)?’. We’re also treated to an ode (‘Doctor Doctor’) to those hard-working medical professionals who did their best to keep us alive during the worst days of the pandemic, and the dance numbers are an energetic affirmation of survival. Not giving lead dancer Shaun Oelf a more integrated part in the proceedings feels like something of a missed opportunity in terms of cohesion, though it has to be said Oelf is a delight to watch and does his job expertly.
THINGS GET REAL also touches on longstanding societal issues like class, poverty, and drug dependency. Jessie’s (Madeegha Anders) lament for her former carefree life, ‘I Remember Her’, tugs at the heartstrings, as does Zane’s (Anzio September) ‘What About the People?’. Jawaahier Petersen delivers a stand-out turn as Aunty Merle’s neighbour and best friend Soraya, as she more than keeps pace with Lottering’s laugh-a-minute style and deftly holds her own in the more dramatic moments.
While the plot may not be earth-shattering, the show succeeds as a sort of scrapbook of memories exploring our collective consciousness. There are moments of cultural commentary that really resonate, like when we see Merle making sure her portraits of the Queen and Lady Di remain separated and Benny (Loukmaan Adams) explaining the function of the ubiquitous toilet roll doll to a dumbfounded Ayanda (Tankiso Mamabola, whose singing voice alone is worth the price of admission).
The show doesn’t try to gloss over the fact that this town can be a tough place to live, but it does suggest that even people who’ve moved abroad for the ‘accents and electricity’ may find themselves being drawn back to that intangible something that makes Cape Town such a special city. Just ask Aunty Merle’s sister Moira (played by the hilarious and indefatigable Carmen Maarman), who’s beginning to reconsider the attractions of Perth-fontein.
Aunty Merle’s earnest but failed attempts at adjusting to Mandy’s (Crystal Finck) preferred pronouns come across as sweet and well-meaning (and as an honest bid at grappling with something unfamiliar), though one does get the feeling the joke didn’t need repeating quite so often, as the multiple appearances of that particular punchline do leave the impression that the audience is being encouraged to laugh at modern go-getter Mandy rather than at the main character’s trademark Merle-apropisms.
The show reaches its not-entirely-unpredictable conclusion by way of a fun little jab at everyone’s favourite national power utility. (At least we’ve still got our sense of humour. Like the Aunty says, her prayer list is too long already.) As the curtain comes down, one’s left with a pleasantly contented feeling that the irrepressible Aunty Merle’s helped us all make sense of the last few years—or at the very least given us a few opportunities to laugh at ourselves. And at our neighbours and their sadly lacking catering skills, of course.
If you missed the previous two instalments and you’re worried about being left in the dark, don’t be. This show was designed to please both existing fans and new converts to the World According to Aunty Merle.
The excellent on-stage band, consisting of Keith de Bruyn, Lee Ludoph, Jed Petersen, Craig Potgieter, Yvan Potts, and Daniel Titus, keeps things moving at a suitably festive pace, and the set and lighting design (by Patrick Curtis and Mannie Manim, respectively) produce a pleasing ‘holiday TV special’ effect.
The show was written by Marc Lottering, produced by Anwar McKay, and directed by Lara Foot. Trevino Isaacs was in charge of musical direction, Grant van Ster did the choreography, and the costume design was done by Jeanne Maritz.
AUNTY MERLE: THINGS GET REAL will be on at the Baxter’s Pam Golding Theatre until the 21st of January. Tickets are available online through Webtickets.