Lee-Ann van Rooi in Henrietta, with Love, showing in the Artscape Arena until Saturday. Picture: Supplied

Henrietta, With Love

Director: Sandra Temmingh

Cast: Lee-Ann van Rooi

Venue: Artscape Arena

until: Saturday

RATING: ***

Drug abuse, gangsterism and violence form the subject matter of most plays about life on the Cape Flats, so it comes as a welcome surprise when a work like Peter Voges’s new one-hander, Henrietta, With Love, offers a perspective on the world of a humble woman with no reference to any of the abovementioned themes.

This is an intensely personal monologue blending warmth, naivety, candour and – as the title implies – love, with heart-melting sweetness. Henrietta starts out as a stage character and ends up as a person whom members of the audience would be happy to call their friend. We are aware from the outset that there is something tragic in Henrietta’s past which has marked her with anger and sorrow, but not enough to kill her joie de vivre when recalling the life she has led or the culture that has shaped her. Dressed in homely attire, her speech slow and laboured, she embarks haltingly on her recital of memories and experiences, warming gradually to the exercise – although one or two hiccups suggest the debilitating effect of past trauma.

There is a disarming lack of rancour in her account of events that would cause legitimate bitterness among most, such forced eviction from the family home near Kirstenbosch to the bleakness of Athlone: “My, there was such a to-do!” is how she alludes to it with a smile, this gentle humour recurring throughout her reminiscence to leaven the pervasive sense of heartache.

Through her layered monologue we encounter a vibrant society and some recognisable types among her acquaintance, like the resourceful Mrs Castens, a neighbour of generous proportions ever ready to assist with dressmaking and millinery, or Freda, whose aspirations to being “white” lead to the betrayal of friendship with the likes of Henrietta.

We are made aware of the shabby treatment meted out to her disabled husband Charlie on his return from active service in North Africa during WWII, but again, without rancour. Then there is the focal point of Henrietta’s memories, recounted with joy: the wedding of her daughter Mercia with its happy fuss over clothes, accessories, coiffures and superstitious observances.

When it comes to anecdotes about her sister Rosie, Henrietta’s tone sharpens noticeably; clearly there is a healthy dose of sibling rivalry here which adds to the woman’s credibility as a person.

At last we have the key to her present condition as she recounts the accident that left her in triple bereavement and dependence on “nerve pills” to survive another day.

The neatly structured work ends as it began, with Henrietta carefully sitting at a table laid for a meal and toying with her napkin: no appetite and no pleasure.

Lee-Ann van Rooi under Temmingh’s direction not only portrays Henrietta; she becomes her with a conviction born of… love.

Alfred Rietmann’s evocative light and Leigh Bishop’s design complete a satisfying theatrical experience.