Review: Tin Bucket Drum

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Once in a rare while a story comes along that leaves the listener mesmerized. A story that transports its audience to another reality, perhaps not so different to ours, but one where magic is real and the spirited heart of a little girl can return the rains to an arid and forgotten town.

Hearing a story like this is like finding a gem in the dust, and it is even more precious when breathed to life by a talented team that combines unexpected elements to bring about a stagescape of fantasy and wonder.

Tin Bucket Drum is just such a gem. Award-winning playwright Neil Coppen crafted this charming parable that is told like a classic fable. It starts with Nandi, highly pregnant and looking for a better life for her and her unborn daughter. Following a promise of welcome and blessings, she is searching for the ‘paradise’ of Tin Town, but what she finds once she enters the gates of the town is far from what she expected.

The people of Tin Town walk, work and live in silence. The town has been taken over by the Censor, a ruthless dictator, who has aggressively instilled a regime where silence is sacred. Even the rain has stopped falling in fear of making a racket. Rhythm has been demonized as the work of the devil, cursed as inspiring unlawful and ungodly behaviour, and the people of Tin Town plod submissively day after day, their lives devoid of song, stories or drumbeats. But when Nandi gives birth to Nomvula, the baby’s ‘insolent heartbeat’ threatens the dictator’s stranglehold, and promises a rhythmic revolution.

This is a timeless story with universal appeal, one that Ben Okri and George Orwell could have written if they had put their heads together. And it is brought from script to stage by a scrupulously attentive crew producing it with the Imbewu Trust – a tiny team aimed at promoting and developing South African arts at a local and international level.

Mpume Mthombeni gives a stunning one woman performance, pouring her all into every role from the narrator to mother Nandi, from Mkulu – the loving old man whose dancing legs and music-making fingers were broken by the government – to the stern headmistress. Mthombeni is both the joyfully rebellious Nomvula and the unforgiving dictator, switching between the characters with the same ease with which we switch on a light. Her performance is gripping, her talent highly commendable. She is a master storyteller, with a face and a voice that breathe life into every single moment.

On the left of the stage, almost hidden in the dark, sits Wake Mahlobo, surrounded by drums, cans, cutlery, wind chimes and other paraphernalia. A magician of sound, Mahlobo employs professional precision to accent – with bangs and rattles and shuffles – Mthombeni’s movements and multi-character monologue.  His live percussion serves as auditory subtitles that tie together the story and underline the impossibility of a reality where sound could be sinful.

In one stroke director Karen Logan has proven that a good show does not have to be dependant on special effects or expensive sets. Small but perfectly formed, Tin Bucket Drum is striking in its simplicity, with a minimal amount of actors, props and lighting. The unusual use of shadow puppetry on the backdrop adds to the evocative storybook feel of the show, reeling the inner child deeper into the performance.

Since its first run at the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 2007 it has taken Tin Bucket Drum a while to make its way to Cape Town. But it was worth the wait. In the intervening years it has raked in awards (including the Standard Bank Standing Ovation Award in 2010) and received shining reviews both locally and in New York. For me Tin Bucket Drum is hands-down the best theatre production this year, and you’ll be missing out on something very special if you don’t get down to the Kalk Bay Theatre this month. It is as refreshing as a rainstorm breaking the African drought.

If you love a good story, if you love the theatre, if you love being enraptured like a child or if you love a good, clean laugh then Tin Bucket Drum is beating out your name. Give in to its rhythm.

Marilu Snyders

Tin Bucket Drum runs at the Kalk Bay Theatre 14 August to 8 September 2013.  Details here.  Pot luck meals (usually curry or pasta) are available before or after the show, with no booking required.

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