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Get ready for a carnival in Penzance

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David Dennis is the one that bowled them over last year and Keaton Ditchfield is new on the stage in this year’s production of Pirates of Penzance, which opens this week at Sandton’s Old Mutual Theatre on the Square and runs until December 22. DIANE DE BEER spoke to the stage veteran and virgin about this extraordinary show and life beyond.

“I was the guy playing sport,” says Keaton Ditchfield, son of showbiz couple Paul Ditchfield and Judy Broderick. But his mom urged him to try out for a show, which he did because of the cool girls he would meet. That he did, but he also lost his heart to the stage.

In his final year of musical theatre studies, he was delighted when he succeeded in this audition for Pirates, but also terrified to join the illustrious cast including David Dennis, Jonathan Taylor and Clinton Hawks, with Michael Richard and musical director Kevin Kraak also new to the show.

“Many of these guys were my heroes when I was a boy,” he says.

But from where I was sitting in on a rehearsal, this youngster seems to have found his voice.

Dennis can keep you enthralled for a long time sharing his extraordinary stage career.

You can simply sit listening to his beautiful voice as he slips into storytelling mode. He is one of those actors who is always a delight to see on stage.

His versatility sparkles as he moves from the poignantly powerful Blood Brothers to the madcap Delirium and then puts on his dancing shoes and lifts his flouncy skirts for The Pirates of Penzance.

Even though he wonders what his career would have been like had he left for London during the apartheid years, he knows South African actors have much weightier CVs than most of their counterparts around the world.

“We have to do anything,” he says. The only thing that worries him is that managements seem to be casting younger, because that’s cheaper. “There’s a reason a 14-year-old Juliet is played by a young-looking 35-year-old actress,” he says.

“They need that life experience to understand the character.”

He fears that we’re moving towards a lightweight industry.

He certainly doesn’t have to start worrying about his career chances. A few years back, he was doing mostly television and film, but this past year has been packed with different theatrical endeavours that seem to take on a life of their own.

“We were going to take Blood Brothers to Edinburgh, but had to postpone because I was doing something else,” he says.

For Keaton, while he is only starting his career, he is only too aware of the many pitfalls. They banter about lack of holidays, the short seasons of shows in South Africa, the insecurity of the life of an actor. David, who has many strings to his bow, like teaching, knows how to make the career work for him. That’s something Keaton is also aware of. He’ll be aiming for the stage as his passion and hopefully also jump into business to make some money.

“We’re frontier people,” says David about the acting community and everything they’ve achieved through the years. “We should be celebrated.”

And he’s right. Our artists don’t have an easy life and yet they are the most remarkable group of people. There’s hardly a production that doesn’t blow you away in some way – from a tiny moment to the whole shebang. But they’ve always had to battle the odds, sometimes almost bizarrely. “I’ve never been more aware of race when casting than now,” says David.

Hopefully, in a country struggling with its past, these are growing pains and there are signs that both institutions and productions are starting to show real change.

Equality is the rallying cry for David though – on every level.

Life is on the fast track for Keaton and he knows it.

“People know who I am in the industry,” he says. But once he gets the job, he has to provide the goods – perhaps more than most.

While Keaton is trying to find his feet in this, his first professional adult show, David is delighted to be given the chance to reprise a role for which he was rewarded with a Naledi.

“That’s just good for business,” he says about the award. But it’s like discovering a treasure to be diving back into this glorious world where the actors with their director, Greg Homann, are truly at play.

“We’re not delivering any messages or placing it into political context, it’s entertainment. It’s all about taking a fresh look and coming with new ideas,” concludes David.

The Pirates of Penzance is a fun night out at the end of a tough year. If you witnessed the whoopee last year, enough said. If not, get on those glad rags and get ready for a carnival.


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