James Cuningham in Sunday Morning at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, 4 July 2012. (Cuepix: Lauren Rawlins)

SUNDAY MORNING

DIRECTOR: Jenine Collocott

CAST: James Cuningham

VENUE: Kalk Bay Theatre

UNTIL: August 11

RATING: *****

A magisterial performance from James Cuningham and a script replete with poetry, poignancy and incisive wit make this one-hander by Nick Warren an exceptionally stimulating piece of theatre.

Sunday… for most people, a day of rest, recreation, or renewal of intimacy with their Maker.

Not so for Mat the photographer (Cuningham). For him, the Sunday morning in question brings an epiphany as he embarks on a journey that takes him out of the neat, circumscribed existence to which he is accustomed, and plunges him headlong into the messy, but exhilarating drama of life.

This odyssey starts when he goes for a run to digest the unwelcome tidings of his girlfriend’s pregnancy and its attendant prospect of unplanned paternity.

The audience becomes his confidante as he articulates feelings, which range from steaming resentment to whining self-pity: at this point he is definitely antipathetic, an un-heroic mix of vulnerability and selfishness whose only endearing trait is human frailty.

When he suddenly encounters unfamiliar territory in the course of his run, he relives a clichéd urban nightmare involving violence and robbery, but the apparently sinister location turns out to be the scene of Mat’s life-changing discovery. The dénouement is both dramatic and unexpected, the stuff of true theatre.

Cuningham works through the play’s demanding agenda with aplomb, every nuance of the script impeccably conveyed to maximise the impact of the simple but arresting plot. This he achieves with the minimum of props and costume (on opening night some of the set was missing, making the stage furniture even scantier than originally intended). In the event, this proved irrelevant to the show’s success: the actor’s grasp of his metier is such that he can make a handful of shredded paper evoke a human drama and move the least susceptible members of the audience.

Supremely confident in his role and master of the spoken word as well as mime, Cuningham captivates his spectators and retains their attention throughout the performance with the tenacity of a terrier. This is a tour de force by the most exacting standards, from the brilliant, wordless preface to the last speech. A gem.