CHALK GIRL: Kamishibai performer Jemma Khan.


DIRECTOR: John Trengove

CAST: Jemma Khan

VENUE: Alexander Upstairs, above The Alexander Bar, 76 Strand Street, Cape Town

UNTIL: Thursday

RATING: ****

THIS thoroughly modern take on the Japanese art form of kamishibai is storytelling at its best.

Kamishibai went through a revival in the 1920s to 1950s in Japan as storytellers moved through suburbs with wooden theatres on the back of bicycles. They told stories using storyboards and the children who bought sweets got the front-row seats.

Jemma Khan’s take on the art form received rave reviews at the National Arts Festival, as well as a Silver Ovation award, for a good reason. It’s engrossing, surprisingly sophisticated and pretty hilarious to boot.

So, we when you enter the (truly intimate) little theatre above the Alexander Bar you get Chalk Girl in the front row, silently linking the various stories, as Khan knocks together her two wooden clappers to announce she is about to tell another story. The set is deliberately littered with the paraphernalia the audience will associate with Japan.

There are six stories in all, told using varied styles and differently drawn storyboards.

She starts with the story of The Spider Thread, a morality fable featuring the Buddha. This would be closest to the original incarnation of kamishibai, when it was used by Buddhist monks of the 12th century as a sort of paper drama, to tell stories to a mostly illiterate audience.

Now, however, Khan draws on contemporary stories and references and she keeps the stories moving along at a pace fast enough for our tweet-a-second minds.

The story that gives the production its name – The Epicene Butcher – is darkly poetic, but this contrasts beautifully with the more lighthearted Mario’s Lament.

The second story – Omorashi, aka The Tale of Kengo – is where the other part of the title comes from. If you don’t know what hentai is, look it up before you approach the show, because this isn’t for everyone, but it sure was funny. Think giggly soft porn.

Khan’s expressive voice and physical performance draw you in, so even when the stories take a decidedly twisted turn, she mesmerises you into listening. She provides various voices but also simply allows the storyboards to tell the poignant tale of a father’s search after the tsunami hit Japan, in Fukushima. A South African story approaches our history from the outside with Khan’s faux Japanese accent bringing down the house.

The show wouldn’t really work without Chalk Girl because in addition to providing amusement between stories she’s a great reminder not to take the whole thing so seriously.

Yes, it draws on a long and honourable theatrical tradition, but the stories manage to be profane and profound at the same time in the manner in which they are presented.

It’s a loving homage by someone who clearly loves the tradition and has made it her own.

Khan expertly draws you into the worlds she creates and keeps you there, creating that magical glamour which reminds you why you like going to the theatre. • Age restriction: no under-16s.