Writers: Nicholas Spagnoletti, Justin Oswald, Tertius Kapp, Jemma Kahn, Rosa Lyster, and Lebogang Mogashoa
Director: Lindiwe Matshikiza
We Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants sees South African performer Jemma Kahn act as a kind of modern day Scheherazade, recounting a series of seven darkly comic, often allegorical, and sometimes macabre tales through the traditional Japanese form of street theatre known as kamishibai or ‘paper play’. It involves the performer narrating her stories, each penned by a different South African writer, accompanied by dozens of often striking images revealed one-by-one inside a simple wooden frame. The feeling is something between listening in on an illustrated adult bedtime story, delivered by a kabuki-style cabaret performer, and watching a live manga cartoon.
The underlying theme that connects each of the narratives revolves around long-standing inequities and challenges in modern South African life. ‘The Slothful Tale Of Erasmus Blank’, in which a bone idle, over-privileged, TV-addicted young man suffers a well-deserved restaurant mishap, provides a caustic comment on deeply embedded white attitudes to black workers. Enduring wealth and privilege lie at the heart of several other tales, too. ‘Lady Fiona’s Song’ features a cat who inherits her late owner’s fortune, only to find that money is a fickle and ephemeral friend.
‘Enemies And How To Love Them’, illustrated with a series of stock images of smiling, happy families, delivers a cautionary tale on the consequences of falling out with one’s wealthy best friend. The final story, ‘Spaghetti Of The Whores’, accompanied by a series of evocative and highly suggestive collages, provides a pitch-black, graphic warning against the temptation towards sexual extremes afforded by an unchecked sense of entitlement.
In addition to arresting images and strong narratives, Kahn’s Kamishibai demands a storyteller with cabaret-style charisma and a knack for visual humour. These are qualities the quirky and engaging performer, in this her first London stage appearance, that she excels in. At the outset of the show Kahn delivers a highly ritualised striptease that ends up in her donning a kimono-style costume. It is a piece of physical theatre that works brilliantly, both an expression of a dramatic transition from western to Japanese traditions, and as pure, unadulterated burlesque.
There is a louche lasciviousness about Kahn’s performance that makes the show feel edgy and delightfully dark. This is not one for kids. Her own story, ‘Pride’, delivered through line-drawn images and with a much pared-back accompanying narration, is perhaps the most intimate of all.
We Didn’t Come To Hell For The Croissants delivers a classy concoction of satire, social commentary, and clever visual humour in an absorbing and fascinating 70 minutes. It may be a while before another Kamishibai-style piece of theatre comes to London, so catch this if you can.
Runs until 4 February 2023