Review – Anansi, an African Fairy Tale – Southwark Playhouse

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I love fairy tales and I’m a fan of Anansi, even before Neil Gaiman came up with his take on the story. Anansi, a spider god in the folklore of Africa, is a trickster god much like Loki and Coyote. His stories are fun to read because they often end with some creature with a much bigger ego getting his come-uppance. So I was game to see what the Southwark Playhouse was doing with their Christmas “anti-Panto,” Anansi, an African Fairy Tale. It seemed in keeping with the general level of London Christmas theater fare, that it would be a fairy tale, but I expected it would NOT involve people dressed as horses or a sing-a-long, and this was fine.

What it was was five people, two men and three women, doing a few of the Anansi tales strung together into a whole, that being “the three deeds Anansi (Anniwaa Buachie) agreed to do so that the Sky-God would release the ‘stories’ to people.” This was obviously a trope to get some of the standard Anansi tales within a story line. However, the meta-story was too complex: while one bit was the “three deeds,” there was also a bit about Anansi’s best friend looking for a husband and having to go through a series of potential husbands to see which one was right for her. This formed the bulk of the first tale, as Anansi’s friend (Vanessa Sampson) wound up picking a disguised snake, “Vipro” (Toussaint Meghie) as a potential mate: he though she was “tasty” but not in the right way. Anansi, of course, helped save her, which seemed like a great way to move on into more major stories; but instead we got caught up with fiddling around to capture various creatures as required by the Sky God, and then more boyfriends came up. I was sorry that the playwright hadn’t stuck with three or four major stories instead of watering it down. At the end, though, came the kicker: the lesson Anansi learned after trapping bees, a panther, and a fairy so that he could deliver them to the Sky God was that they probably would have come if he’d just asked. Is this the Trickster God? No, I think not: tricksters have no regret. This seemed to be some weird English add-on for the kiddies and utterly foreign to the character of Anansi. Boo on the tacked on ending!

The actors were, I thought, generally good and full of talent but hampered by a weak script and rather dull songs. Still, it felt much better than last year’s horrible Nation, and I felt it actually had a lot going for it that made it more of a pure distillation of African culture than Fela (which seemed just too full of itself). The actors were also, I believe, struggling with a 3/4 empty house. However, seen as a play mostly done for kids, this was a fine show that could take them along for the ride; and for adults, it wasn’t too bad. Still, it’s not something I’d consider a must-see without quite a bit of editing to the script.

(This review is for a performance seen on Monday, December 13th, 2010. It continues through January 8th, 2011. For another view, please see A Younger Theatre.)

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