‘Master Harold… and the Boys’ review – Ballroom dancing in Apartheid South Africa

Lucian Msamati and Hummad Animashaun are the perfect pairing in Athol Fugard’s slow drama with a devastating crescendo – ★★★

As rain poured down on the set of Master Harold… and the Boys when a horrible thunderstorm was continuing outside, I feared the ceiling of the Lyttelton Theatre was leaking. Instead, the inclement weather hits the glass ceiling of St George’s Park Tea Room in South Africa, where a young boy shelters from the rain while two servants practice their ballroom dancing.

Anson Boon is the privileged youngster Hally who confides in the tearoom’s servants, Sam (Amadeus’ Lucian Msamati) and Willy (Hummad Animashaun, who just finished starring in Nicholas Hytner’s incredible A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge). As Hally looks back on his childhood, and the two waiters on their dreams of ballroom dancing, the adolescent’s approach to his relationship with the pair soon turns shocking and aggressive.

Leading up to that point, however, the pacing feels slow and the story – at times – hard to follow. My mind, much like the characters on stage as they reminisce, is sadly elsewhere for most of the performance. Like music and dance, it’s the crescendo towards the end of the piece which carries an impact, and delivers a brutal reality. Yet without fully understanding the emotional build-up that precursors it, some of its punch is lost. Though as the play concludes, the closing scene is powerful in its delivery: charming and emotional.

All credit for this goes to the brilliant pairing of Msamati and Animashaun, who are as much in sync with each other physically (in terms of Shelley Maxwell’s wonderful choreography) as they are in terms of dialogue. Animashaun, who excelled as Bottoms in the aforementioned Bridge production, further demonstrates his talent with comedic timing as the reserved Willy. Meanwhile Msamati’s establishment as a father figure to the troubled Hally is endearing and commanding.

As tragic as it is comical and with an impressive trio of actors, I desperately wanted to enjoy Master Harold… and the Boys as much as fellow audience members, most of them on their feet at the end, but for this ballroom drama, I can’t help but feel like there were a few missteps.

Master Harold… and the Boys is now playing at the Lyttelton Theatre until 17 December.

Production Images: Helen Murray.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch Master Harold… and the Boys for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.

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