Kelly-Eve Koopman in Keep off the Grass.
Kelly-Eve Koopman in Keep off the Grass.
Mark Elderkin and Terry Norton in Ashes to Ashes.
Mark Elderkin and Terry Norton in Ashes to Ashes.

ASHES TO ASHES

DIRECTOR: Gabriella Pinto

CAST: Terry Norton, Mark Elderkin

VENUE: Alexander Upstairs

UNTIL: February 7

RATING: ****

KEEP OFF THE GRASS

DIRECTOR: Gabriella Pinto

CAST: Kelly-Eve Koopman

VENUE: Alexander Upstairs

UNTIL: February 7

RATING: ***

THIS DOUBLE BILL from Pinter and Pinto is more of a happy marriage than a mésalliance despite their very different characters. Harold Pinter’s darkly enigmatic drama and the crisp suburban satire of Keep off the Grass represent the twin masks of theatre, one sombre, the other smiling – and both exercise the collective mind of the audience to good effect.

Economical staging is essential in the compact space afforded by Alexander Upstairs, and the lightning change from one set to the other between shows is impressive: from the claustrophobic intimacy of Ashes we find ourselves in a peaceful garden with the paraphernalia of horticulture as the action moves to Keep off the Grass.

The first of these productions is an exemplary piece of theatre in which tight direction and magisterial acting come together to generate drama of almost unbearable intensity. Terry Norton, as Rebecca (a woman haunted by the ghastliness of a past she can neither forget nor put behind her) offers a performance memorable for its poignancy, her prolonged silences as eloquent as her speech. Mark Elderkin’s Devlin has the requisite understatement to provide the ideal foil for Norton’s unstable emotional temperature.

As the pair venture into the murky territory of the past, with Devlin probing and Rebecca evading, reality and fantasy fuse and the dialogue becomes increasingly opaque, full of disconcerting non-sequiturs that leave the intrigued audience pondering long after the actors’ final exits.

An antidote to this shadowy drama is the bright, breezy one-hander performed by Kelly-Eve Koopman as an obsessive housewife whose universe is defined by her politically correct fynbos garden, her maintenance of security, and her interaction with neighbours in her middle-class suburb. There are delightful touches to hint at her personality and round out her character – such as her progression from quaffing rosé wine from a coffee mug to drinking straight from the bottle as inhibitions soften in the course of her monologue.

Koopman has a convincing take on her persona, but is possibly a tad too young to be wholly plausible in the role. Her expressive face and clear diction distract from this minor deficiency, however, and the overriding impression is one of a female many an audience member will identify from their personal acquaintance, a recognisable social type in contemporary South African suburbia.

Since Koopman co-authored Keep off the Grass with Pinto, her penetration of the text is predictably keen, and that, together with her strong stage presence, makes this an arresting piece of entertainment to send Alexander’s patrons home in good humour.