Hanna Grobler, Andre Lotter, Luan Jacobs and Tobie Cronje in Vettie Vettie

Diane de Beer

Visualise the tall and gangly Tobie Cronje and the title Vettie Vettie (My Fat Friend) doesn’t come to mind, even if the image makes you smile.

That’s the gentle Tobie who has a kind of hangdog look that makes you feel you want to rush over and give him a big hug. He smiles when you remark on the title and, as he is playing the friend, he’s not the one that’s fat – natch.

But how smart of producer Kosie Smit (Kosie House of Theatre) and Pieter Toerien to attach this treasure to their first Afrikaans production at Toerien’s Montecasino theatre. It’s an open secret that Afrikaans audiences support theatre, but more relevant is that the landscape is opening up to embrace the full diversity of our artists, with language not hampering.

It’s taken time, but James Ngcobo at The Market is planning to do similar things.

And if you are a regular at the various festivals around the country, and an ardent theatregoer, it is the richness that flows from people as diverse as Prince Lamla to Marthinus Basson that informs local theatre and makes it so proudly South African.

That’s why Cronje and Vettie Vettie are a clever choice to open the perhaps tentative Toerien exploration of broadening theatre choices. Vettie Vettie was translated by Johan Bernard and adapted by Pierre van Pletzen from My Fat Friend, the hit comedy by Charles Laurence.

“I was supposed to direct Vettie Vettie a few years back,” says Cronje, which meant that he had the whole production in his head, the way it would play out and that kind of thing. But then Smit wanted him to play the lead with André Odendaal as director. “It means more money,” says Cronje wickedly as he glances at Odendaal, but there’s a camaraderie as they understand the industry.

Even though they knew each other, they hadn’t worked together and both are enjoying the experience. “Ideas always pour out when I’m working,” says Cronje, and Odendaal encourages that. He is also an actor, understands how they work best and has a relaxed touch to keep things rolling.

“Everything becomes slightly heightened in my head when I start rehearsals,” says Cronje, so he needs calming down. But Odendaal describes him as gentle and sees something of himself as he prepares for his roles.

“I know that an actor wants to be directed,” he says. And he has encouraged Cronje to push the boundaries. “It’s good working with someone for the first time, because he doesn’t allow for any comfort. He challenges me to come up with something different.”

Everyone knows that comedy is tough to pull off. You can’t play funny and when you’re as naturally hysterical as Cronje on stage, the temptation is there to display all the usual tricks.

“Not this time,” says Odendaal, and that’s exactly what an actor as experienced as Cronje wants to hear.

“I can walk around in anguish,” says this funnyman who seems to hold audiences in the palm of his hand. Yet while he is playing a gay friend in this one, Odendaal didn’t necessarily want him to camp it up too wildly. That would be too easy.

And to further up the ante, he is also performing with a youthful cast, most of whom will be watching this master with starry eyes.

“It takes me back,” he says as he remembers his early days. For Odendaal, this masterclass is important for younger actors. They don’t have the luxury of mentors, as these older actors had.

“It’s important to create a real person on stage, and the performance has to be serious,” says Cronje, with his inner clown comfortably intact.

Vettie Vettie, which opens at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre for previews tomorrow and runs until June 1 before moving to the Theatre on the Bay, where they open on June 4, is a play that pokes fun at women’s eternal struggle to shake off those excess kilograms.

Vicky (Hanna Grobler) is the successful owner of a bookstore in Hatfield, Pretoria. She is single and visibly fat. When she meets the man of her dreams, Tom Delport (André Lotter), she decides to shed those excess kilos once and for all so that she can claim her prince.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy – especially when your one housemate is a gourmet cook and the other likes to remind you of all your previous failed diets.

Henri (Cronjé) has been friends with Vicky long enough to know her get-thin resolutions won’t last long, and he derives great pleasure from teasing her incessantly about it.

James (Luan Jacobs) is a culinary expert who is incapable of making an ordinary meal. However, he works for Vicky in her bookstore and has a soft spot for her.

With this team determined to shatter the myths and send the numbers soaring at Montecasino, wrap up and head out for some hot and silly laughter with Cronje and his gang.