Review: Spanish Steps –coming-of-middle-age comedy – quirky, uplifting and fun two hander by Gavin Werner, premieres at 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda

Spanish Steps- comedy drama – premiering at 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF]

When: Spanish Steps is on the Curated Programme of NAF 2022 – for three performances, in the Hangar-  June 26 at 6pm, June 27 at noon and at 4pm
Direct booking link: https://nationalartsfestival.co.za/show/spanish-steps/
Duration: 70 minutes

Writer: Gavin Werner
Cast: Gavin Werner and Dianne Simpson
Director: Caroline Midgely
Lighting design: Frans Mandilakhe Zunguze
Set design and costumes: Caroline Midgely and cast
Photography/promotional Videos: Rethea Boer    

Note: Vaccine mandate applies at the Hangar venue- scroll down for info, in box, below

Visit: www.nationalartsfestival.co.za for the full #NAF2022 programme and bookings. The festival dates: June 23 to July 3, 2022

American author Elizabeth Gilbert’s coming –of-middle-age memoir, Eat, Pray, Love [2006] had food, sex and travel, which is very cool and aspirational and tapped into the yearnings of older women wanting to get a life- a ‘new’ life – and discard the old one. Gavin Werner’s coming-of-middle-age comedic play, Spanish Steps, which premieres at the 2022 National Arts Festival in Makhanda, has food (plot-spoiler – a sandwich during lunch hour); sex and travel (not going to plot spoil the latter two). I thoroughly enjoyed the two hander, starring Werner and Dianne Simpson- framed from the gaze of a middle age man – who is gatvol (fed up). I saw Spanish Steps, in a pre-festival quickie run at Theatre Arts in Cape Town; a preview season to calibrate the production in preparation for the festival.

In the pandemic, there have been a prodigious output of books – novels and memoirs- by older women about women. After doing the wife and/or motherhood/family thing/looking after aging parents etc and then getting older (let’s say – past 40), they get to a crunch point and think –- “heck – time to get a life”. And where are the men in all this? What about their dissatisfaction, after a life of being tethered to domesticity and expectation; being providers, in the traditional, binary sense of conventional marriage and responsibility? In the glut of coming –of-middle-age lit, in the pandemic, I haven’t come across many books or plays, which grapple with a meaty coming of age, older male story which wrestles with the fall-out from fatherhood, husband-hood and general drudge. I am talking specifically of an ordinary/regular/average male person – not a celebrity with oodles of money and fame- who decompresses in luxury and then writes a memoir/ fictionalised novel/play and then it becomes a best-selling coming-of-middle-age sensation.

Spanish Steps, presents a bold, entertaining engagement of facing oneself – regret, disappointment, yearning for the roads or steps not taken. The title, ‘Spanish Steps’ is emblematic of everything that Barry (Werner) visualised his life as playing out. Instead, life happened – fatherhood specifically and marriage and earning a living as a developer (IT). In developing other people’s systems, he has neglected to regulate his own equilibrium.  Barry gets stuck in a basement with his colleague/boss, Maureen (Simpson). She is a control freak and audits his every move. She is watching over his shoulder, with unbridled zeal. Maureen has her own issues as an older woman, coming of age and alone; lonely and feeling somewhat unhinged.

In the basement, in being tethered to one another, they feed off each other’s discontent and sadness. But, this is Barry’s story and the focus is beautifully rendered on his trajectory – the male toxicity that he has skirted in his life of service – to others. And in the end? Plot spoiler alert: They are released from the basement – and the release is emotional as well as physical for Barry – who has a lightness in his step –as he walks out the door.

Women are not the only ones chained to the proverbial kitchen sink. Many men get trapped and shackled into an algorithm of domesticity and family which does not give them space for any sense of joy or appreciation. Spanish Steps is quirky, uplifting and fun. Barry quips about his relationship – “awesome in the beginning – pity about the last twenty years” – or words to that effect. Gavin Werner and Dianne Simpson vividly conjure up Barry and Maureen – two lost souls connecting and bonding in a shared sense of ennui- and ultimately emerging – on the other side – feeling a lot better.  Sensitive and tender direction by Caroline Midgely, melding two very different people together and embedding the audience in the journey so that we emerge, with a smile and a sense of feeling upbeat.

Struggle: Gavin Werner in Spanish Steps, which premieres 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF]. Werner stars opposite Dianne Simpson. Pic: Rethea Boer. Direct booking link: https://nationalartsfestival.co.za/show/spanish-steps/

In control: Dianne Simpson in Spanish Steps, which premieres 2022 National Arts Festival [NAF]. Gavin Werner is in the foreground (blurred). Pic: Rethea Boer. Direct booking link: https://nationalartsfestival.co.za/show/spanish-steps/

Important Notice to all National Arts Festival Goers –as supplied by #NAF2022:   

In a recent development, Rhodes University-owned venues on campus will require ticket holders over the age of 12 to produce proof of vaccination, a negative COVID-19 test (no less than 72 hours old) or proof of recent COVID-19 illness (within the past three months) in order to gain access to their venues.   

This applies to Rhodes University venues ONLY.
These are: 

Rhodes Theatre 
Rhodes Theatre Foyer 
Rhodes Box Great Hall 
The Hangar Beethoven Room 
Nuns Chapel Studio Gallery 1
Studio Gallery 2 
Tryall Cottage The Raw Spot 
African Media Matrix 
Rhodes Red Foyer  Social Innovation Hub 
Rhodes Department of Fine Art   

Should you not be vaccinated, or not have access to your vaccination certificate, the Festival has secured a dedicated rapid testing station in partnership with the Rhodes Department of Biotechnology  for ticket holders at The Old Goal at 40 Somerset Street. These tests will be subsidised by the Festival and will cost only R50 each.       

✳ Images supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/interview-pushing-through-to-hope-in-gavin-werners-comedy-drama-spanish-steps/