It may be set 125 years ago in America’s Deep South, but the issues of black oppression and poverty are still as relevant today.

Cape Town Opera, Africa’s premier opera company, begins its short UK and Ireland tour in Birmingham – revisiting the Hippodrome, where it last came in 2012 with Porgy and Bess.

“The longer I’ve worked on Show Boat, the more interesting and meaningful the piece has become,” says director Janice Honeyman.

“It is possibly the classical musical that has the most telling reverberations for the South African situation.

“It deals with the haves and have nots, the arrogance of the advantaged and their ignorance regarding poverty and racial discrimination.

“Things are much the same in South Africa. Apartheid may not officially exist as a black and white issue, but it certainly does as far as wealth and poverty goes.

“There’s very definitely a big divide there. The underlying political theme is still very recent for South African audiences.

“Britain has its own racial and poverty problems too, so I hope audiences there will find it relevant as well.

“I may give the impression that it is grim and depressing, but actually it’s a jolly musical with wonderful hit numbers, a romantic love story and pretty period costumes.

“It has plenty of visually exciting show stoppers, as well as dances like the Charleston and the Black Bottom. There’s fun and frivolity as well as pain and passion.

“The chorus, Voice of the Nation, have such rich voices and a real commitment to telling the story. It comes from the heart and I think audiences will relate to that.”

Janice Honeyman, director of Show Boat for Cape Town Opera
Janice Honeyman, director of Show Boat for Cape Town Opera
 

With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Show Boat first opened on Broadway in 1927. It was one of the first American musicals.

It is set in 1887 on the Cotton Blossom show boat as it sails on the Mississippi River. It follows the lives of the performers, dock workers, musicians and stagehands over the course of 40 years and songs including Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.

Janice is speaking from shivering Cape Town which she complains is “freezing – it’s the coldest winter we’ve had”.

It makes a change for someone to be looking forward to visiting Britain for the weather.

Janice knows Birmingham well, having visited relatives on several occasions in the city as a child – and being introduced to pantomimes at the Hippodrome.

“I can’t remember who I saw when I was small, but I loved it.

“I still like going there, the last one I saw at the Hippodrome was John Barrowman in Aladdin in 2008.

“I love panto so much that now I put my own one on in Johannesburg every Christmas. It’s true that you don’t get many pantos outside Britain, but audiences here enjoy it.

“I do a very topical production. I’ve been doing them for 27 years.”

Janice grew up in Cape Town with actor Sir Antony Sher, a Royal Shakespeare veteran whose partner is RSC artistic director Greg Doran. Janice directed Antony in a very African version of The Tempest in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2009.

“I have known Tony since I was four, he is my oldest friend,” says Janice.

“Our mothers, Marge and Mary, were great friends in the 1940s.

“Tony and I grew up in Sea Point together, we swam in the same pool and debated against each other.

“I love Stratford. It was one of my life’s dreams to put on a Shakespeare play in the town of his birth, so now I can say I have achieved that.

“I will be staying with Tony and Greg (Doran) in Stratford during my UK stay, as it’s a useful base for Birmingham and Manchester.”

* Show Boat plays Birmingham Hippodrome from July 2-5. For tickets, ring 0844 338 8000 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com .

‘Race issues aren’t softened’

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones

By Christopher Morley

The man on the podium at Show Boat will be Gareth Jones, who has worked for many years with Welsh National Opera and Sinfonia Cymru.

“I came to Show Boat relatively late in the day. “Under the tutelage of their chorus-master Albert Horne who has been conducting the show, they’ve become the great operatic chorus that they are, but he’s now leaving to take up the post of chorus-master in Wiesbaden.”

“I had to go out to Cape Town and watch a bit of the rehearsal period. I should have been conducting two performances, but ended up being one, because I picked up a bit of a bug.”

With the show based on the tensions of racial discrimination (the “n-word” is used, and mixed-marriages are forbidden), this is bound to be a fraught production coming from a country with such a bitter history of racial division.

“The core chorus in Cape Town is a black chorus, and in Show Boat the issues are in no way softened,” Gareth explains.

“There’s no substitution of words which in these days we could not possibly want to use. It’s a very brave thing to do, it’s very honest to the piece, it kind of serves to highlight the stupidity.

“I sat out front in the audience for the first night, and wondered what the reaction would be to certain words and certain things in the performance. There was the odd reaction, but there wasn’t the corporate intake of breath at certain times, it didn’t happen.

“This is actually my first musical. I had done no music theatre before this, and it’s a very odd period for me, because at the same time as doing this I’m actually conducting a performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel in Llangollen, so I couldn’t have a better initiation, a better more varied initiation into the genre of musical theatre than to actually do a classic early musical, with possibly one of the great musicals of the last 20 or 30 years.”