MORE BITTER THAN SWEET: Sam (Tshamano Sebe), Hally (Alex Middlebrook) and Willy (Themba Mchunu) in a scene from Athol Fugards Master Harold& and the Boys. Picture: Jesse Kramer

MASTER HAROLD... AND THE BOYS

DIRECTOR: Kim Kerfoot

CAST: Tshamano Sebe, Themba Mchunu, Alex Middlebrook

VENUE: The Studio, upstairs at The Fugard Theatre

UNTIL: March 30

MASTER Harold… and the Boys has weathered the years as one of Athol Fugard’s stronger offerings.

Just more than 30 years on it is part history lesson, part morality lesson, but wholly a poignant coming of age story. More bitter than sweet, it represents a 1950s white South African boy embracing the entrenched bigotry and racism of apartheid.

Set during a single rainy afternoon in a tea room in Port Elizabeth, the one-act play gets a dynamic treatment from director Kim Kerfoot.

He keeps the actors moving around the room just enough to stop it from being a talking heads show, but not so much that it becomes too frenetic.

Littered with 1950s paraphernalia, the stage is a lino-floored tea room straight out of your grandma’s recollection, complete with a jukebox in the corner.

Conflicted about the possible return home of his crippled, alcoholic father, Hally (Middlebrook) takes out his frustration on the two waiters in the tea room.

Willy (Mchunu) and especially Sam (Sebe) have been part of his life for as long as the teenager can remember, but as it becomes clear that his father is about to return Hally starts to put up a wall between him and the two older men.

Hally takes out the years of repressed anger on the two in the idiom he has been learning from his racist father, and the vocabulary he is learning at school, undoing all the warmth and camaraderie the men have shown him up to this point.

On opening night Alex Middlebrook started off by racing through his lines, but he settled in nicely – steadied by the more seasoned Sebe and Mchunu – and by the end of the evening his performance boded well for the rest of the run.

He manages the condescending tones of a child who doesn’t even realise how hurtful he is being, as well as the more deliberately insulting insistence that Sam and Willy know their place, with frightening ease.

The audience on opening night laughed at inadvertent jokes but by the end of the evening they were shifting in the seats, uncomfortable with the tones of this white child insisting the older black men were subservient and less worthy.

What you can latch on to is the way he struggles to reconcile his love for his father with his (almost) rejection of his father’s thinking and way of life.

Mchunu has impeccable timing and an incredible stillness about him. As Willy he looks gangly with his pants pulled up to almost under his arms, awkwardly trying to follow Sam’s instructions on how to do the quickstep.

When Sam and Hally are arguing about whether to call the young boy Master Harold, poor Willy is practically trying to crawl into himself as he tries to efface himself out of the confrontation.

Though the Willy character provides much of the comic relief here, Mchunu imbues him with enough humanity to make his insight into the situation believable.

Still, Sam knows that what is said can never be unsaid and tries very hard to stop the young boy, even offering a glimmer of hope right at the end when he invites the child to come and fly a kite.

But, Hally points out as he leaves that one cannot fly kites in the rain.

Sebe is a comforting solid presence representing trust – the father Hally so desperately wants but cannot accept because race will keep them apart.

While the title suggests it’s Master Harold’s story, it is really Sam’s because it is his wasted potential that stays with you, longer than Hally’s devolution into a racist teen.