Play review: Butlers and Bridesmaids (radio play) wins Standard Bank Ovation Award on the Fringe at the National Arts Festival NAF 2021

What: Butlers and Bridesmaids (Radio Play) at The Fringe, National Arts Festival 2021 Available: Available until August 31, 2021 Booking link: Ticket price: R40

“So, Ladies and Gentleman, the plot; like a rich savoury gravy, is beginning to thicken …”This is the Narrator, speaking in Butlers and Bridesmaids (Radio Play), which is streaming on The Fringe, National Arts Festival, until August 31, 2021. Butlers and Bridesmaids is a delicious concoction of voice and images, characters. There is a dude, called Dwayne, who is also the Butler (played by Jos Nel. The Narrator is voiced by Justin Wilkinson and he is delighted that the radio play has received a 2021 Standard Bank Ovation Award. The play is drenched in a Gothic Schlock vibe, mashed up with Rocky Horror Picture Show and lashings of South African twangs. It is Theatre of the Mind, with voice as the primary medium of expression – with sound effects heightening the vocal dynamics. With headphones on, one can close one’s eyes and be transported by Dwayne and his gang and the wacky melange of accents. I am not going to plot spoil. Have a listen.

The 2021 NAF, marks the 23rd year that Wilkson has participated at the festival, with his company, Slick ‘n Sleeve, producing Butler plays. Before Covid and lockdown, the Butler troupe trekked to Makhanda, When the NAF announced its online festival in 2020, a pivot was made to create the audio play; Butlers and Billionaires. The play received a 2020 Ovation Award. Wilkinson is chuffed that they won another Ovation, this year [2021], with Butlers and Bridesmaids. The 2021 edition of Butlers marks a departure from other works in the Butlers franchise. Before Covid, when the plays were staged in theatres, with an audience-in-attendance, the format of each play was that at junctures in the narrative, the audience was prompted to decide what happened next. Audience participation was key, with people whooping at each twist and turn. When Covid scuppered staging plays in a theatre, Wilkson presented four different versions of Butlers and Billionaires at NAF 2020– mirroring the theatre format of audience participation. Viewers were given the choice of four presentations – differing in narrative outcomes.

For NAF 2021, Wilkinson said that it was decided to dispense with different versions. He explains: “We found that most people selected one of the multiple Butlers options that we had in the online format. Also, the story line of Butlers starts the same and then generally splits into multiple ‘chains’. This works very well in a live show, however, online, it can be a bit more of a challenge. So this year, 2021, we’re telling one story, with the primary focus on the narrative and the thrill of being immersed in a sound experience.”

I personally have enjoyed the audio plays more than the theatre stagings but I am not generally a fan of audience participation. When watching Butlers in a theatre, I found that the participation diminished the drama. The participation brought in hilarity from the audience but it stopped the flow -for me. However, one of the reasons that Butlers was a hit at NAF and sold out on many occasions, was because people loved being involved -participating. I am sure that when we can go back into a theatre, with decent numbers, that I will be stoked to be at a Butlers show, with an audience chipping along.

Wilkinson, says, they are geared to go back into theatres. The medium of a radio play/audio play has been exciting to explore but ‘live’ is first prize.  He says: “It is an exciting medium. Playing with sound can be so much fun. Sound is great as you can really do almost anything.” Online provides access to a global audience and the possibility of participating at online festivals, so audio is something to consider for future Butlers incarnations. “We are coming up with some innovative ways to push the envelope even further through this medium. However, being on stage is where live interaction allows us to feed off the energy of an audience.” Congrats to Wilkinson and team for innovating and taking a concept which hinged on audience participation – in a theatre – and re-positioning the concept for online viewing – and winning two Ovation awards – 2020 and 2021.