Theatre review: Spirited portrait of Gertrude Stein And A Companion, rips and riffs along at a clip- short season at Theatre on the Bay, Cape Town – February 1 – 5, 2022

What: Gertrude Stein And A Companion by Win Wells
When: February 1 – 5, 2022
Where: Theatre on the Bay, Camps Bay, Cape Town, South Africa
Performers: Shirley Johnston as Gertrude Stein and Lynita Crofford as Alice B. Toklas
Direction: Christopher Weare.
Duration: 60 minutes
Age advisory: PG (adult themes)
Tickets: R180-R220
Booking link:    

I saw Gertrude Stein And A Companion, a two-hander play by Win Wells, performed by Shirley Johnston and Lynita Crofford, in September 2018, at the Alexander Bar (no longer in existence). I enjoyed the play thoroughly. I saw the same production (the same but different – read on), last night at Theatre on the Bay, February 1, 2022 and loved it. The play, presents a vivid portrait of the American writer and poet Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, her life partner. The current staging seems lighter and the dialogue comes across as crispier. Humour between the protagonists has intensified. The narrative has been amped up and rips and riffs along at a clip. There was a standing ovation – a very forceful one.

Romantic Paris songs and humour

Johnston and Crofford have embodied the essence of Gertrude and Alice. I laughed a lot and hummed to the ooolala French playlist of songs, collated by director Chris Weare, which conjure up Paris. I want to go to Paris, now and be serenaded by La Mer by Charles Trenet. It struck me as I was writing this, that besides the title – La Mer – The Sea- I have no idea about the rest of the lyrics but I identify it with Paris and a sense of being able to be strolling down the streets of Paris, which is what Gertrude and Alice did. They had Gertrude’s money to lead a cloistered life in the arts, along with a generation of Americans finding artistic expression in Paris, far away from bigoted America.  They had both fled America for bohemian Paris. Toklas hailed from San Francisco and moved to Paris, in 1907. She met Gertrude the day after she arrived in the city of lights. Their connection was immediate. That was it. Gertrude was Gertrude and Alice was quirky and rubbed many people up the wrong way. They were a fit.  They were together for almost four decades, until Gertrude’s death in 1946. They managed to hide out the Nazi years, protected by friends and influence but that is another story. Gertrude Stein And A Companion foregrounds their mutual dependency one each other and the foil that Alice, with her acerbic and pithy outlook on life, provided Gertrude as Famous Artist.

Pacey and energetic

The pace of this production seems to have picked up, which reminded me of sitcoms such as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Veep – with people finishing each other’s sentences. It adds energy to the narrative and adds vigour to this play. Alice was essentially the wife of Gertrude. She took care of her professionally and personally in their bubble in Paris at their famous nest, 27 rue de Fleurus on the Left Bank on the 6th arrondissement of Paris (they lived there from 1903 to 1938.). Their home was filled with paintings by the famous (Picasso, Miro, Cezanne) and everyone who was anyone attended their famous salons. Ernest Hemingway was part of their circle and so was Pablo – as in Pablo Picasso. Hemingway famously dismissed Alice B. Toklas as Gertrude’s “companion”. Pablo adored Alice and she adored him. Alice was her own person – not giving a hoot about the famous people in her midst – even Gertrude- came in for her share of ribbing as we see in the play. That was something in the face of Alpha Artist like Gertrude, Pablo and Hemingway, with their utter self-belief, egos and narcissism. Alice was cool and went about lovingly dusting and polishing Gertrude’s collections of objects, recognising their beauty and the stories that they told. The richness and opulence of their life is conveyed beautifully in Chris Wearer’s set design – re-creating the salon at 27 rue de Fleurus.

Opulent design- space works beautifully at Theatre on the Bay

When I saw the play at Alexander Bar in 2018, it felt cramped because the stage was tiny. The play is one about intimacy and the Alexander was certainly an intimate space. On that viewing, for me the play was a lot more intense and serious. Seeing the production, presented in the beautiful Theatre on The Bay and it as if the production has space to unfurl and is able to lighten up. The life of Gertrude and Alice was opulent and full and the space at Theatre on the Bay provides a palpable vibe of recreating their Paris abode.

Sound –the soundtrack –romantic

I attended the preview and some people had issues with the song track which they felt was too loud. I loved the music and could easily hear the dialogue. The songs enhance the romance and wistfulness that this play evokes. Chris Weare’s use of photos, mementos (such as a cutting from Gertrude’s tour to the USA, after a nearly three decade absence) are stylishly dropped onto a screen on stage, adding to this being a postcard –a vignette – from Paris.

Length of play – pared down

Before I saw this play in 2018, I googled reviews of productions abroad and many of the critics said that it was a lovely play but way too long. This production is one hour and is spirited and vigorous and is a joy to watch. In 2018, I wrote: “Under the precise direction of Chris”, they “conjure up the feisty spirit, acerbic wit of Gertrude and Alice.” That holds but this staging is even better – heighted with a light touch and the humour has been teased out. It is wonderful to see the revival of this production again, in year three of the pandemic. Besides from it being a historical-drama; a portrait of famous people; for me it resonates in terms making art; making a life with someone you care and love; listening to each other and laughing together at each other’s foibles. It is a tender play and funny- funnier now in 2022, than in 2018, on my first viewing.

❇ Images supplied by Theatre on the Bay.