Review by Sam Waite
The diverse ways a piece of theatre can be presented are, at times, astonishing. At other times, these methods of presentation and the content being performed can be deeply confusing, even unsettling to watch. Then there are the best of times, when something you go into with no preconceived notion or ideas leaves you wondering, “What on earth was that?” as you smile from ear to ear and debate whether your schedule allows a return visit. We Didn’t Come to Hell for The Croissants is one such bizarre treasure.
A cult hit comprised of short stories written almost entirely by South African creatives, the piece is performed as a one-woman show by one such author, Jemma Kahn. While each of her fellow South African writers went on the win a Pulitzer Prize, Kahn is the real driving force behind the work – she is at once a dazzling, unattainable star and a Fleabag-esque everywoman. Beginning the evening with a striptease pitched perfectly between over-serious seduction and self-deprecating humour, Jemma guides us through a singular experience with the help of not only South African storytellers, but a piece of Japanese artistry.
The work presented ranges in genre from heart-warming family drama to hysterical comedy routine, making brief stops in musical theatre and even motivational speaking. The many authors – Jemma Kahn herself, Nicholas Spagnoletti, Justin Oswald, Tertius Kapp, Rosa Lyster and Lebogang Mogashoa – and a handful of illustrators – Kahn again, Carlos Amato and Rebecca Haysom – have created a set of stories that manage the difficult feat of being completely disconnected and still feeling cohesive as an evening of theatre.
These stories, save for one, are illustrated and shown to us through a kamishibai – “paper play” in English – a simple frame in which the images can be placed and removed one by one to reveal the next moment in the tale. A popular form of pre-television street theatre in its native Japan, the kamishibai’s presence immediately elevates the confident and well-acted stories by allowing for additional jokes, both verbal and visual. Kahn introduces us to the device following the first story, about a lazy young man who somehow makes a career out of his love of doing nothing – this allows the impact of this form of storytelling to have its full effect, with the audience unaware of how the story will be told until the first illustration is revealed.
Of course, this is more than a woman showing us pictures and dictating flatly what is happening in them. Kahn is a stellar performer whose narrative manner and tone change to suit the characters of each piece, with often hilarious character voices and speech patterns getting as many laughs as the stories themselves. Her banter in-between stories is also captivating, with her audience kept engaged through something as mundane and banal as a woman taking one load of cardboard out of a frame and slotting in another.
Director Lindiwe Matshikiza has helped to merge Kahn’s eccentric energy with the balance of laugh-out-loud comedy and stellar storytelling on offer here. Utilising her background in collaborative and explorative work, Matshikiza has worked with Kahn to craft an evening so well-structured and so often passing as purely spontaneous that her hand in the affair is almost invisible. I mean this as high praise, as her direction is so precise and measured that what these two women have created feels organic and truly lived.
The stories themselves are all worthy of their author’s later accolades. All these stories, Kahn tells us, were written by brilliant South African writers… except one, which was written by four English musicians, but she’ll leave you guessing about which. This is a nod to her literalised take on The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, in which the characters are fruit and veg and the hammer is very much literal – front row, stage left, you’ve been warned.
Other memorable moments include a live-reading of a letter from a language-obsessed stalker, a silent presentation of a lesbian daughter’s struggle to be accepted, and a self-help lecture on how to better oneself through having enemies. Frankly, I could talk ad-nauseum about each individual piece, but for the sake of limiting the word count here and giving you some mysteries to look forward to, I won’t.
In fact, I’ll have to leave it at that because I, a mere mortal, cannot do justice to what Jemma Kahn presented at Riverside Studios. After hundreds of performances in a myriad of locales, We Didn’t Come to Hell for The Croissants appears to have lost none of its magnetism or momentum, and Kahn’s performance is so thrillingly alive and passionate that you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s a brand-new piece. If you like drama, or comedy, or sex, or music, or smashed apples, or singing cats, you’ll surely adore this show.
We DIdn't Come To Hell For The Croissants plays at Riverside Studios until 4th February, Tickets from riversidestudios.co.uk
Photos by Dean Hutton