REVIEW: The South Afreakins (The Basement)

Review by Tim George

[Super Gold (card)]

When I think of white South Africans, a couple things come to mind: Apartheid, the Springboks, the religious psychos who used to live up the street and, of course, the bad guys in Lethal Weapon 2.

It says something that The South Afreakins managed to win me over. To cut to the chase, this show is great.

Written and solely performed by Robyn Paterson, the show tells the story of Gordon and Helene, a retired couple who decide to sell their farm and move to New Zealand for a fresh start.

Switching between characters, Paterson is excellent at playing their interactions in a way that manages to approximate the pace of a real conversation. With no costume changes, she recreates Helene and Gordon with simple changes in posture and voice.

The set is very simple – a side table, a chair, a lamp and a large pad of sketch paper featuring images of a tree changing through the seasons.

Starting as caricatures of an old married couple, Gordon and Helene are defined by their exchanges with each other – a comic argument over the night lamp soon boils down into a debate over their future.

Another plus is that Paterson does not sugar-coat her characters. Helene talks dismissively of her maid stealing her things, and shows discomfort in having to sit next to a black man on the plane to New Zealand. Meanwhile Gordon is uncommunicative and unwilling to change.

While you do not get a lot of background detail on the couple, they clearly have a bit of money (they have at least one maid and farm hands), and that sense of status (not to mention Helene’s paranoia at the world outside their barred windows) does make it a little hard to get on their side.

With Helene, Paterson leans into making her truly unsympathetic. Racist, nagging, and unable to be self-sufficient at the most mundane of tasks, it is easy to see Helene as the ‘antagonist’ of the show. Paterson’s characterisation is more nuanced than this easy descriptor, and her journey becomes the backbone of the show.

Over the course of the show, this Afrikaans version of Keeping Up Appearances slowly builds into something deeper. The show is ultimately about displacement – through age, loss and sense of place. Paterson does not hit you over the head with the show’s message, allowing these ideas to emerge out the couple’s petty disputes and banter.

Funny and affecting in equal measure, The South Afreakins is a delight.

The South Afreakins plays until 19 August. Details see The Basement

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