The Paul Slabolepszy written, FORDSBURG’S FINEST, is currently pulling on the nostalgic heartstrings of audiences at Theatre on the Bay. Onstage until 10 September 2022.
FORDSBURG’S FINEST is not a new play in concept. It was originally written by Paul Slabolepszy in the late 90s and has now been reworked and revised as a two-hander. The original version, as with many plays of its time, focused on reconciliation and the birth of our rainbow nation, while the reworked version attempts to be a retrospective exploration of the positivity at play amidst the guilt and confusion of that time. It is this reconfigured perspective that Slabolepszy presents in his 2022 FORDSBURG’S FINEST.
The original FORDSBURG’S FINEST premiered in 1998, at the Market Theatre, as a three-hander with Marius Weyers (playing the smooth-talking second-hand car salesman, Foxie Freddie), Dorcas Johnson and Paul Slabolepszy, under direction of Lara Foot. In 2022, audiences are treated to the Bobby Heaney directed staging at Theatre on the Bay, with Slabolepszy himself now stepping into the shoes of Foxie Freddie (an eternal optimist with a bit of a broken spirit) opposite Chi Mende (Thandi, an American in search of her South African birth place and roots).
I truly wish I had seen the 1998 version. By all accounts it was a great production and of-its-time impactful. So much has happened politically in our country since then: some wounds have healed, new ones have been cut open and a next generation of rainbow-nation seekers have stepped into the spotlight, that one wonders why Slabolepszy chose to rework a very specifically time-stamped play, instead of delving into the reconciliation problems of the here-and-now. That’s the question that has been mulling around in my mind since seeing the production at Theatre on the Bay. But perhaps it is not for me to ask the why, but merely to ponder how it was performed and received.
As the story unfolds, we meet two characters both hopeful yet haunted by the past: one running away from something and the other running towards something, meeting at a crucial crossroads in their lives. That crossroad happens to be at a second hand car dealership built on the place where Thandi’s parent’s house (her actual birthplace) once stood. As Thandi wanders into Freddie’s dealership you see her saving a life (or rather preventing him from taking one) as a precursor to the fact that although she is searching she could also be doing some saving in this serendipitous, perhaps even cathartic, snapshot in time.
The moment in history that the play finds itself in, the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, hits a nostalgic note that automatically solicits a certain emotional response. Apart from that, and the triggers of knowing some of the 90s radio advert references, I did not really connect with the performance of the play on an emotional level.
I felt the moments calling for real depth to be overwrought, as if it was a made for TV piece rather than a theatrical experience. Slabolepszy’s character does have some charming cheesy comedic moments that aids the breaking of the tension between the characters, and plays into the second-hand car salesman stereotype, while revealing cracks under the surface of a broken hearted man, who smiles to prevent himself from crying. Sadly, it is those moments (with the potential of true connection between the two characters), that felt rushed. I wish these moments were directed to allow them to breathe and develop, to invite the audience to invest in the journey rather than cue them to respond in a manufactured manner. The climatic moments felt pre-packaged rather than earned. Perhaps it is just me, but I rather like characters having a conversion with each other, developing a rhythm, without them breaking away to stare across the audience towards the horizon to indicate a moment of deep reflection or importance. It takes away the illusion that this could be something real.
The set is beautifully detailed with a strong sense of realism, but the direction feels like it clashes with it in its soap-operatic-character. For me personally, the actors did not have a true rapport: they were two people speaking at each other, rather than having a believable conversation. It may just have been the energy on the night of my viewing, but unfortunately FORDSBURG’S FINEST fell a bit flat for me.
But don’t let me make up your mind for you. Art, after all, is subjective. And it is always a treat to see a South African performing legend of Paul Slabolepszy’s calibre onstage. So, go see for yourself whether FORDSBURG’S FINEST resonates more with you than it did with me on the night. I hope it does, as I truly wanted to like it more.
Tickets are available online via Computicket. The run at Theatre on the Bay ends on 10 September 2022, where after it transfers to Pieter Toerien Montecasino Theatre.