The South Afreakins written and performed by Robyn Paterson is, thankfully, not the sort of solo show that makes you shiver and predict the worst. The hour-long set, first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe where it achieved an extended sell out season, is a light-hearted comedy about relationships and loss.
With Paterson’s undeniable talent, and the heady pace with which she performs every character, it is not surprising the show has already picked up two gongs. Whilst her acting is captivating, the writing is heavy-handed and never quite transcends clichés.
Based on the experience of her own parents after retirement, The South Afreakins tells the story of Helene and Gordon who leave South Africa, where their murdered son is buried, and move to the peaceful hills of a gated community in New Zealand. With a sparse set, the play relies entirely on the energy and ability of Paterson to render this duo, which she does with great talent.
On the one the hand, we have Helene; the domineering, loud housewife. And on the other, Gordon; the grumpy old man whose regressed into adolescence. She sits up straight, and tries to engage him in conversation; he slouches and answers in monosyllables. She wants to move, he doesn’t. She engages with others, he misses home.
While the creation of such stock characters creates a certain humorous back and forth, any proper expose of the complexities of human beings and their relationship is somewhat sacrificed. Beneath the heavily laden jokes about gardening, bad knees, and free bus tickets, it is hard to believe in the characters enough to genuinely empathize with them.
There was something of a sitcom quality to the writing of the script, which I found patronising and lacking in truth. At various points Helene makes cheap jokes about dementia which felt a desperate attempt for laughs over everything else.
Saying this, after exiting at the close of the curtains, there was something which had struck me and has stayed with me. At the end of the play Gordon dies, leaving Helene alone in New Zealand. She offers the duvet to a now absent Gordon – a well formed habit after being married to someone for decades. Paterson does not respond with a growl or a grimace as Gordon, but instead there is a silence; and for the first time in the play there is a total sense of absence.
For the first time in the play, the audience sees one person on the stage instead of two flickering figures. As if for the whole play the eye has been out of focus, and suddenly comes into focus, one substantial body takes the place of the two half forms. As if Paterson has played neither one nor the other, nor herself, but instead performed the grasping of both. This moment, for me, altered the implications of everything I had previously seen. Instead of Gordon and Helene, it becomes Helene alone, and the play itself, an attempt by Helene to construct a past with Gordon only she bore witness to. Abandoning some of the content of the exchanges, the form of the solo show, and Paterson’s unnerving ability to multiply allowed perhaps the most convincing portrayal of the particular quality of memory I had ever seen – incomplete and ever elusive.
It appears the play triumphed very much despite itself. If felt as if everywhere Paterson had laid a heavy hand in terms of the writing – the boring ageist jokes and the stereotypical tropes – the play fell down. And the few laughs seemed at a heavy price.
Where Paterson shone was in her talent as an actress, at keeping up with fast-paced dialogues and using the full range of her skills. Her performance showed me how and why the mode of a solo show came into being; not simply a cheap replacement, but instead a mode, containing immeasurable power in and of itself.
The South Afreakins played at the VAULT Festival until 19 February. For more information about Robyn Paterson’s production, see here.