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SCENE IT: Slade's subtle SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR deserves time to breathe

Marina Griebenow

 

Well respected director Christopher Weare is an actors’ director. Over the years, as a senior lecturer at UCT, he trained the best of the best, while putting on plays that set the bar high and honed and refined the actors’ craft in the process.

Weare has a particularly close relationship with Alan Committie, popular Cape Town stand-up comedian, raconteur and actor. To the best of my knowledge, he has directed Committie in most of his stand-up shows.


In 2013, Kalk Bay Theatre and The Fugard were Weare’s chosen venues for Bernard Slade’s Broadway hit Same Time, Next Year when he did the play with Paul du Toit and Julie Hartley as George and Doris. Considering it the perfect vehicle for Committie’s comedic skills, Pieter Toerien and Gloucester Productions decided to resurrect this 1975 romantic comedy, dust it off and present it at Theatre on the Bay. Weare directs again and Committie is joined on stage by Sharon Spiegel Wagner.


The plot revolves around George and Doris who first meet at a hotel where they are taking some time out from their respective spouses and children. After flirting a bit, they predictably have a one-night stand. Surprisingly though, they decide to continue their affair by meeting annually at the same establishment and over the same weekend. The audience gets an opportunity to follow the path of their relationship over the course of about 25 years.


Slade’s version of the play starts in 1951 and explores the growing bond between George and Doris, the nature of fidelity and adultery and the influence of the ever-changing social landscape as both of them grow older. Weare updates the play and George and Doris meet in 1976.


Weare is known as a hardcore music fan. One is not surprised therefore that the scene changes are indicated with music relevant to that particular era. George cracks up the audience when he explains to Doris why “Kung Fu Fighting” is “their” song. Humorous video projections of George and Doris dancing also buys them some time for the necessary (and hasty) scene and costume changes.

Niall Griffin is a member of a small tribe of excellent set designers. With a keen eye for the required aesthetic and meticulous attention to detail, he more than competently fills the big boots of a generation of designers that preceded him. His set for Same Time, Next Year is not only impressive but it is functional. Remember, all the action happens in the same room, decade after decade. By making subtle changes to lamps and bedding, among others, the set serves to underscore the era being portrayed and also acts as a backdrop to the growth of the characters.


Not all his stand-up comedy fans know that Committie is also a award-winning serious actor. In fact, as recently as 2019 he won a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award as Best Actor for his portrayal of Richard III, while he also gave a great performance in the disturbing play Oleanna the previous year.


One is baffled therefore that Committie and Weare have decided to adorn George with Committie’s typical stand-up mannerisms, gaffes and gags. George is an accountant and it would be completely credible for him to be scatter-brained and slightly befuddled, but what we see in the first few scenes is a man repeatedly almost tripping over a pouffe on the floor (as he did in Boeing-Boeing, a farce), regular fake panic attacks which require the use of an asthma pump, a wig that looks as if he borrowed it from his stand-up character Johan van der Walt, and the planted corpsing that is a hallmark of his comedy.


More importantly, these attempts kill the romance and passion inherent in the script, and if that is removed, all that remains is a commonplace story about an affair, after which you leave the theatre with a shrug and a “so what”.


Slade’s play ends up resembling a Committie comedy routine rather than a thought-provoking play that, in a nuanced fashion, considers issues of intimacy, commitment, heartbreak, shared grief, sacrifice, and even birth. The humour is supposed to be subtle and elicit giggles rather than guffaws, while the dialogue offers moments of hilarity and vulnerability.

Unfortunately, this crass hijacking of a perfectly decent play is not an isolated case. One saw the same happening in The Producers which had to close just before the hard lockdown in 2020. On the opening night it was riveting and Committie blew everyone away with his laugh-a-minute portrayal of Max Bialystock, down-on-his-luck Broadway producer. However, when I went to see it on the last night it was performed, it had been hijacked – robbing other brilliant performances of their relevance.


Perhaps Committie should just trust his ineffable capacity for getting into another’s shoes, holding the stage and house, and giving an authentic performance. He’s done it so often before. Wagner is the perfect foil for Committie. She is strong, imbues her character with a sense of fun and displays a versatility that complements the arc of her character. Irony is that she also gets the loudest laugh eventually when she mimics George’s wheezing when he becomes anxious.


Same Time, Next Year is a heart-warming two-hander, a captivating love story that deserves its current run at Theatre on the Bay. It needs to be given the opportunity to breathe though.


The production runs until 16 September 2023. Tickets, ranging from R180 to R280, can be booked online through Webtickest. The play runs at 2 hours, including a 20 minute interval. It carries an age restriction of 16.

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