A classic, comedic musical treat

2012-02-16 00:00

TWO Nottingham Road-based performers, who headed for the bright lights of London before succumbing to the lure of home, are now working hand in glove to produce some of the best cabarets and revues in KwaZulu-Natal.

Singer Cat Simoni and actor Paul Spence have been delighting audiences from Mooi River to Maritzburg with shows like Rocky Horror Nite, their tribute to the cult seventies film; the poignant, ballad-filled The Girl From Somewhere, produced by Alan Sutherland; the Parisian revue, Moulin Rouge; a tribute to Sweden’s fab four, We Luv Abba!, and Noel & Gertie, In Love Again, which is being staged at the Hexagon Dive Theatre tomorrow and Saturday night.

The show is set in a cocktail bar in Jamaica in the sixties, where a rather bored Noel Coward is unexpectedly reunited with his muse, the gorgeous Gertrude Lawrence.

In the brief, deliciously funny encounter that follows, the pair perform the wickedly comic ­honeymoon scene from Coward’s smash hit, Private Lives, and sing songs, including Mad About The Boy, The Stately Homes of England, Don’t Let’s Be Beastly To The Germans, Mad Dogs and Englishmen and London Pride.

 

Simoni, who is originally from Durban, studied at the Uni­versity of KwaZulu-Natal Durban campus, before heading overseas to try to break into the music business in London.

“I auditioned for agents and for adverts, jingles, voice-overs. I wrote songs for pop stars, I did backing vocals and the vocals of hit songs for the Far East market,” recalls the singer, who was also a popular chanteusse at some of London’s top venues, including The Ritz, The Dorchester, The Park Lane Intercontinental and Berkeley Square Casino.

But, what she really wanted was to be able to sing the kind of songs that Eva Cassidy became famous for. “I’m not Jennifer Lopez, I can’t shake my booty on stage ... but there wasn’t a market for the kind of songs I wanted to sing, until Eva came along — and by then, my life had changed,” she said.

Ironically, while Simoni has returned home to live in the midlands countryside with her husband and children, her songs are finally making an impact back in Britain. “My producer has been pushing my album, and five of my songs are on the alternate pop and rock charts in the UK. I’m planning to go over to London in September to see him, and we’ll see what happens then,” Simoni added.

 

Fellow Gowrie Club resident, Spence, graduated from the drama department of the then University of Natal, worked for the old Natal Performing Arts Council (Napac) and then jumped on a plane to ply his trade in London.

“If you’re an actor and you’re serious about acting, London is the only place to go — and if you’re lucky enough, you get to stay there and work,” he says.

After enrolling at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he was invited in his third year to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s an actor’s dream, especially if you’re drawn to classical theatre,” Spence said.

He spent seven years as a member of the company in Stratford-upon-Avon, London, and on tour from 1983 to 1990. He later worked as both actor and director in theatres in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Among the many actors he worked with, was Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench in Brecht’s play, Mother Courage.

Spence returned to South Africa in 1996, initially living in Johannesburg, but has since moved to Nottingham Road and describes his new home as “beautiful”. “I don’t have a single regret ... I have my family around me, and I live in the country,” he says.

 

The pair decided to do a show dedicated to the works of the ­legendary Noel Coward, after being encouraged to do so by a patron at one of their shows. “The idea kind of buzzed around my head for awhile,” said Spence, “Coward is such an English thing, but people love it. They love classic English comedy, and his genius with words is wonderful.”

They first performed Noel and Gertie, In Love Again at the Gowrie Park Golf Club but reworked it for the recent, hugely successful performances at the Schlesinger Theatre at Michaelhouse in Balgowan. “We loved being able to perform it on the big stage, but we’re also really excited to be doing it for the Hexagon audience in the Dive,” Simoni said.

“The banter between Noel and Gertie is what it’s all about. She was his inspiration, his ‘divine muse’, his leading lady until she went to the United States. Gertie is irreverent, full of mischief and the audience loves her playfulness, joie de vivre and uniqueness. I think of her as an early 20th-century Maggie Smith,” said Spence.

Both Spence and Simoni have benefited from their part­nership. Simoni says she’s been ­encouraged to leave the safety of the piano and keyboard, and to strut about on stage. “I’ve always been awkward on stage,” said the singer, “but I’ve relaxed a lot. Now I can put on Gertie’s white frock and be all grace and elegance, thanks to Paul.”

Spence, meanwhile, has been testing his singing abilities more often. “I never thought I’d be singing duets from Phantom of the Opera, but I love that I do now,” he said. • arts@witness.co.za

• Noel and Gertie, In Love Again — a musical cabaret written by Paul Spence and starring Spence and Cat Simoni — can be seen at the Hexagon Dive Theatre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg campus at 7 pm for 7.30 pm tomorrow and Saturday. Doors open at 6.50 pm.

This is a picnic evening, so feel free to take your own food, but no drinks. There is a cash bar.

Tickets are R80, and tables seat 10. For more information and to book, e-mail hexagon@ukzn. ac.za or phone 033 260 5537.

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