They say staying in the closet makes you angsty but just imagine living in a suitcase. Yes, life is tough if you are a mannequin of colour and Chester Missing is both black and a puppet. Don’t be fooled though, Chester may not have blood coursing through his veins but he Toyi-toyis his way back from oppression with spectacular zeal. The Superman to Conrad Koch’s Clark Kent, it is hard to pity this pint-sized alter-ego.
From the outset, Koch cautions us that Chester is incensed to be attending his own show. On Thursday 14th February, the irate puppet would much rather be abusing his free press-pass at the State of the Nation Address. Sadly for Chester, he was contractually obliged to perform at the Baxter Theatre in Rondebosch and thus, had to forego the opportunity to meet and mock the country’s ruling elite.
Chester is obnoxious, uncouth and vulgar but I love him for satirising the travesty that is Nkandla, “If Jacob Zuma had a TV Show, it would be called Home Improvement” and for explaining the President’s decision to convene South Africa’s top politicians on Valentine’s Day, “If you had four wives, you would organise a work thing too”.
Chester claims that the white ventriloquist, Koch, puts words into his mouth and shrewdly compares himself to Lindiwe Mazibuko in the calculating hands of Helen Zille. On the ostensible level, however, Chester governs the mild-mannered Koch and it takes all the brawn that the comedian can muster to subdue a dissenting Chester, as the puppet writhes to the rhythms of “Umshini Wami”.
The fuming figure of Chester makes way for Hilary, the nefarious and no longer nubile Ostrich. This sensual old crone emerges half-dressed from her boudoir to discuss men, mating and make-up. In this case, Koch is merely the Stefani Germanotta to Hilary’s Lady Gaga, and the doll spends most of her time in slinky lingerie, pursuing any male audience member that she can get her beak into.
After the intelligent insolence of Chester and the jaded acumen of Hilary, Koch’s final puppet, Ronnie was a little bit of a let down for this reviewer, though others clearly enjoyed him. Green, naked and constantly erect, Ronnie is a modern-day Priapus. A demonic baby with Tourette’s, he is initially an amusing spectacle. Ultimately, however, his jokes fail to satisfy as they are premised upon slapstick gimmicks and voluble obscenities.
By the end of the show, I was not left marvelling at Koch’s unique ability as a ventriloquist or puppeteer. Indeed, one can discernibly see his lips move on several occasions and none of the three mannequins are accomplished feats of visual artistry or design.
To me, Koch’s talent lies in the fact that he is able to slander politicians, corporate institutions and celebrities with perspicacity and insight. In the wake of Apartheid censorship, and in a contemporary political climate that perennially threatens to muffle freedom of speech, this is most welcome. The fact that ventriloquism is the means by which Koch’s observations are articulated, is entertaining, and is obviously a cornerstone of the comedian’s creative process. Yet, from the perspective of a spectator, it is the laid-back iconoclasm of Koch’s script, rather than the act of ventriloquism, that make The Chester Missing Roadshow truly worth watching.