The Ice Cream Boys – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Writer: Gail Louw

Director: Vik Sivalingam

Reviewer: David Guest

South African politics in a post-Apartheid setting provides the edgy background to exciting new work The Ice Cream Boys at Jermyn Street Theatre, a small venue which constantly manages to strike oil.

A boyish banter combines with cut-throat confrontation as two old rivals meet in the waiting room of a hospital – former President of South Africa Jacob Kuma and a one-time mastermind of the intelligence services Ronnie Kasrils.

Played so convincingly by Andrew Francis and Jack Klaff, the old adversaries largely have a grudging respect for one another as they discuss wives, children, power, morality, old grievances and their former times. If they are ashamed of past crimes, misdemeanours, or the way others have been treated at their hands or by their orders they don’t show it. Their verbal sparring becomes an intricate and hard-fought actual game of chess, with pawns, castles, knights and kings taking on a deeper metaphorical meaning.

But what makes Johannesburg-born Gail Louw’s good play even better is that their memories are occasionally interrupted by the ghosts of their own often shady past – sometimes influential figures who also helped to shape South Africa’s modern history, others who refuse to let these antagonists get away with careless rhetoric and the more horrific games they played with people’s lives.

And crucially their young nurse (a powerful performance of carefully restrained energy from Bu Kenene) represents a new post-Apartheid generation for whom bombast and bluster are just well-constructed lies. She fiercely denounces the two old men for being stuck in the past, fighting old battles and failing to listen to what is being said in the present day.

What could all too easily be a dreary play that does little but dredge up the past without challenging it is, in fact, an intense and passionate drama, ignited by performances of intelligence and acuity. Indeed the cleverness is that we are allowed to be charmed and repulsed by the two main characters as they exchange views and insults.

Francis makes Zuma proud and outrageous to the extent that we are both shocked and impressed by his behaviour. This Zuma is the true godfather of South African politics, with a magnetic quality that could wheedle the birds out of the trees. It is frighteningly appropriate that even as the show began its run at Jermyn Street reports were coming in of Zuma being charged with corruption and questionable arms deals.

Klaff is no less charismatic, giving an award-worthy performance as Kasrils, exploring every facet of this undeniably complex politician, activist and harsh critic of the African National Congress under Zuma’s leadership. There is a sense that he judges each retort meticulously, not wanting his opponent to gain an inch. It was all the more fascinating on press night to realise that Kasrils himself was sitting in the second row of the audience, surely enjoying the actor’s craft and attention to detail.

They are perfectly balanced by Kunene, not only playing the spirited nurse but also giving an important voice to the other characters such as Kasrils’ second wife, Zuma’s mother, a Christian missionary and Nelson Mandela.  There is a quiet confidence in her performance, holding her own against the larger than life central figures, especially as she makes an important plea on behalf of a younger generation wearied by the machinations and neglectfulness of the past.

Vik Sivalingam directs with the understanding that this play with a childish and pleasant-sounding title hides something far darker and more dangerous, allowing the actors to prowl around the space and taunt each other, though it is clear that in this encounter neither man is going to win.

The striking black and white tiled set (Cecilia Trono) is every inch the cold and clinical waiting room, a crucible to test the consciousness, yet also reminds us of a chessboard on which the war of words is being played out. Tim Mascall’s lighting shifts the action in this tight space from the dispassionate waiting area to more colourful memories of a corrupt and iniquitous past.

The Ice Cream Boys is a timely exploration of two significant and compelling individuals who made their mark on South Africa’s recent history. With strong, urgent performances from the three cast members it brings an important slice of history to life in a way that is both uncomfortable and enthralling.

Runs until 2 November 2019 | Image:  Robert Workman

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