Review: Butlers and Billionaires – The Radio Plays

Review: Butlers and Billionaires – The Radio Plays at the vNAF 2020 – the virtual edition of The National Arts Festival (South Africa)

Platform: vFringe

Format: Radio plays- four versions of same play with varying plot chains

Available: View until July 31.2020

Scroll down for ticket and production info

Loopy, silly and fun. I was doubled up, listening to Butlers and Billionaires – The Radio Play at the vNAF- at the virtual edition of The National Arts Festival. There are four versions of the same play on at the vNAF.

I tuned into Butlers and Billionaires – Till Death do us part -the story which has nabbed an Ovation Award. I loved revelling in the sheer wackiness and lunacy of Justin Wilkinson’s whodunit franchise which kicked off in 2008 at the then Grahamstown Festival. [Grahamstown is now Makhanda and the festival is the National Arts Festival, Makhanda]. The first Butlers was titled Butlers & Brandy and starred Siv Ngesi. Yup – the Sivster. There is always a butler, chef and assorted dudes with faux French, American accents, South African argot with kugel-ese and plots, murders and intrigue.

The format of each butler play is that at points in the narrative the audience is asked to decide what happens next. Well, that was when one could stage a play in a performance space.  In an interview in 2010 – yes that far back – when the NAF was still The Grahamstown Festival- Wilkinson explained that this is not improvised theatre. The cast rehearses multiple outcomes, according to different plot scenarios in the script. If the audience says A, then the actors will follow that thread and if it is B, they will follow another thread. “It is almost like multiple choice for us and we have multiple endings,” he told me. For the vNAF, they produced four versions of the same play- which unfurl according to different narrative chains. He explains: “We recorded all as separate stories, stand-alone scripts. In other words, two of the shows on the fest site are the ‘Maid’ dies chains. The other two are the Chef dies chains.”

Butlers and Billionaires – Till Death do us part– got me into fits of giggles. Listen out for a fabulous riff off the classic Jewish humour set – The Reading of the Will – featured in You Don’t Have to be Jewish, the 1965 comedy album written by Bob Booker and George Foster. Listen to Butlers. Instead of “Hello Louis”, as in You Don’t Have to be Jewish, it is “hello Sherry”. I don’t want to plot spoil further. It was a terrific surprise, hearing this vintage comedy spiel brought to life in a new context. Impressive writing and allusions to the genre of whodunits. The humour, pacing, sound effects brings to mind Elaine May and Mike Nichol comedy albums. I have watched some of the Butlers in a theatre – with the audience deciding on plot turns – but I have to say that for me – the radio play format has enhanced the experience. I am not crazy about audience suggestion theatre so I guess for me, the stand alone story works better for me as there is no distraction of the audience shouting out suggestions. The audience participation device is very popular and Butler shows sell out. I think that device could be easily ditched. The production quality is excellent – sound effects from the era of radio plays- when radio was theatre of the mind.

Congrats to Wilkinson and his team for bringing Butchers to the digital stage and for winning a deserved Ovation Award. It will make you chortle and chuckle and is a terrific diversion from Covid-19.

Butlers and Billionaires – The Radio Play – a play with four different narrative chains

Platform: vFringe

Tickets: R25 each- ie R100 to listen to all four plays

Available: View until July 31

Direct booking links for the four radio plays:

Production credits

  • Duration: 49 minutes – each play
  • Age Recommendation: 12+
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Producer: Slick ‘n Sleeve
  • Language: English
  • Sound design and editing: CJ Bergh
  • Written and directed by: Justin Wilkinson
  • Featuring: Elizabeth van Vuuren, Marilize du Plessis, Jos Nel and Justin Wilkinson