Review: The Suitcase (Playhouse, Liverpool)

 

The Suitcase offers an opportunity that should not be missed to see a company of wonderful actors from South Africa. Johannesburg’s Market Theatre was founded in 1976 and as a cultural organization was prominent in the struggle against apartheid.

The play they are presenting on their UK tour is based on a short story (by Es’kia Mphahlele) which itself dates from the apartheid era. It’s mostly set in a city in 1950s South Africa, to where Timi and his new wife Namhla have travelled, leaving behind their rural village (and parents who were opposed to their marriage) in search of a better life.

Siyabonga Caswell Thwala as Timi and Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni as Namhla capture superbly the mix of awe, excitement and apprehension the couple feel when they arrive in the big city. Everything is new and unsettling to them, including the train station announcer’s voice, which seems to come from nowhere and comically mystifies them. The city itself is a disconcertingly bustling, crowded place, but not at first unwelcoming, as a stranger helps them find a place to stay. However reality slowly begins to sink in. They live in a small, shabby room and Timi’s attempts to find work meet with repeated prejudice and rejection. He’s overjoyed when Namhla becomes pregnant but the couple’s situation becomes increasingly desperate. Then, on a bus, Timi finds a suitcase, apparently abandoned by its owner. What’s in it, and what should he do? His decision has huge, unexpected consequences.

Two engaging narrators (Molatlhegi Desmond Dube and Nhlanhla John Lata) guide us through the simple but powerful story, commenting (often with wry humour) on events as they unfold. Both actors take other parts as well, including those of a hostile policeman, a drunken down-and-out who cadges a cigarette from Timi and a hilarious neighbour who never stops talking. As with every other role in the play, these characters are brought to completely believable life by tremendously naturalistic acting.

The well designed set is very effective. A raised area represents the couple’s cramped and sparsely furnished home, the rest of the stage the world outside (the station, the streets, the bus), alternately associated with promise and threat.

Beautifully complementing the onstage action are the marvellous songs and music of Hugh Masekela (performed by a female vocal trio and a guitarist), hauntingly evocative of the play’s shifting moods of joy, hope and sorrow.

It’s an immensely moving tale, but there’s plenty of laughter too, especially in the earlier scenes. Live music in the bar and a Q & A after the show rounded off a great evening. The production’s only in Liverpool for a few days, but you should try not to miss this.

***** Make sure you see this company of wonderful actors and musical performers

Photo: Andrew Billington

The Suitcase continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday 7 October