National Arts Festival: London Road

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Nicholas Spagnoletti’s multi-award-winning tragicomedy London Road returned to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival for the third and final time this year.

London Road, winner of the 2010 Standard Bank Golden Ovation Award for Theatre and three Fleur du Cap awards, is the bittersweet tale of the extraordinary friendship between an elderly Jewish widow and an illegal Nigerian immigrant who is forced to sell drugs in order to carve out a living in London Road in Cape Town’s Sea Point.

Ntombi Makhutshi and Robyn Scott as Stella and Rosa in London Road

Eavesdropping on audience members’ responses to the play, I am inclined to agree with the fresh-faced scholar from the prestigious Diocesan School for Girls sitting a few rows behind me who described the production as “a real slice of life” to her friends. I am hoping that she has had little contact with shady drug-dealing characters in her short lifetime, but am struck by the thought that the key to London Road’s success lies in its ability to speak to audiences of divergent backgrounds and age groups.

As a knee-jerk reaction to years in academia, my first instinct is to list the socio-political issues addressed by the play. It’s all there, of course: a critique of the system of economic apartheid which continues to divide the people of South Africa, the exploitation of illegal immigrants, the rampant spread of HIV Aids and particularly the vulnerability of women to the disease. The over-arching theme here, however, is that of interpersonal relationships, how we respond to other people, especially those who are so very different from us.

Through the unlikely friendship which blossoms between Rosa and Stella, each struggling with a physical illness – as well as a disease of a different nature, loneliness – we come to believe in the possibility of establishing deep and lasting connections with others and the ability to find humour even in the darkest of places. London Road is a celebration of those random acts of kindness that catch us unawares.

Despite the element of hopefulness permeating the play, the refuge these characters find in each other is necessarily short-lived. Their witty repartee is over-shadowed by a sense of impending doom. We are left railing against the injustice of the plight of the protagonists and the faceless characters that disappoint and abandon them when they are at their most vulnerable. But even as we grieve their inevitable loss, we are reminded of the old, but nevertheless apt, adage: it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Directed by: Lara Bye
Written by: Nicholas Spagnoletti
Starring: Ntombi Makhutshi and Robyn Scott

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