‘Working hard, without the stress’

2008-03-04 00:00

Actors Annie Robinson and Brendan Grealy together with their three children moved from Johannesburg to Rosetta in the midlands last year where they now run Horizons Gourmet Picnic. Another set of refugees from the rat race seeking the rural idyll? Yes and, emphatically, no. “We didn’t come here to retire,” says Robinson. “We came to start a whole new life.”

“Amazingly, we are working harder than ever before,” says Grealy. “But without the stress.”

And they haven’t left acting behind. Grealy has grown his hallmark character Corrie the Postmaster into an all-purpose brand — from entertainer to motivational speaker — while Robinson has become well known for her “dinner thrillers” created with Paul Spence. The latest, The Strange Case of the Midlands Heiress, is on at the Hexagon Theatre later this week.

They arrived in the midlands last April. “We bought the property and the business,” says Robinson. Horizons Gourmet Picnics is open on weekends and public holidays. “We provide a seven-course gourmet meal in a basket. And we can do various options such as vegetarian or gluten-free.”

Robinson devises the menus and does the cooking with a team of women from nearby Bruntville. “When people arrive we take them to the spot where they will be having their picnic and they will find blankets laid out, cushions and low Japanese tables.” Then it’s a case of just relaxing and enjoying the views of the Drakensberg, the hamlet of Rosetta, the Mooi River and the rolling hills of the midlands. “The picnics give us a context in which to meet people in the area,” says Grealy, who is now involved with the local tourist body.

The couple were founder members of the Loft Theatre Company in Durban and later joined Nicholas Ellenbogen’s Theatre for Africa company, appearing in many productions including the ground-breaking KwaManzi. This went on a worldwide tour that included a performance for the British Royal Family at Balmoral. “That was a real treat,” says Robinson. “We met Princess Di and Prince Charles.”

They then bounced between Britain and South Africa freelancing as actors, producers and directors, eventually coming back permanently and getting married in 1992.

Grealy formed a company, Jumping Dust, specialising in industrial theatre, doing events, awards evenings and corporate traning programmes. He then did a diploma in advanced business management at the University of Johannesburg. “For my thesis I had to do a business plan and I did it on creating Corrie as a brand.”

Originally Corrie was the postmaster of the little dorp of Nugamoya, the setting for A Nativity (filmed as The Angel, the Bicycle and the Chinaman’s Finger) and two subsequent productions, Cinderella and Gone by the Wind.

“But now Corrie has moved on to the corporate world and he’s involved with change and leadership,” says Grealy. “He’s left Nugamoya and now he’s here in Rosetta and he wants to bring people here to the midlands.”

Meanwhile Robinson kept busy acting in television series and teaching drama. “But we knew the time had come for a change,” she says. “Johannesburg was becoming unworkable. You couldn’t get things done, you couldn’t plan three meetings in a day because you could miss them because of the traffic.” Grealy says it felt like being on a treadmill. “It was as if my soul couldn’t catch up with my body.”

They began to look for somewhere to relocate and initially looked at White River. But then circumstances began to point them towards the KwaZulu-Natal midlands. Their eldest son Byron got a scholarship to Michaelhouse; Robinson’s colleague Paul Spence had settled in Nottingham Road, plus their “dinner thrillers” were becoming a regular feature of the Hilton Festival.

“It just seemed like the area to come to,” says Grealy, “what with the good schools.” Second son Connor is at Treverton while four-year-old Ella is considering her options.

They don’t deny the move to the rural midlands was something of a culture shock. “There is no municipal water so we have to fetch it,” says Robinson. “And I’m learning all about chickens and egg-laying.” Grealy wryly adds that his first attempt at burning firebreaks almost saw him set the property on fire.

“But we now do more work than we were doing in Johannesburg,” says Grealy, pointing towards the view across the valley. “And, that’s my screensaver.”

• Visit the website www.horizonsgourmet.co.za

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