The Ice Cream Boys
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 11th October 2019
“There’s never been a better time to make this study, and the Jermyn Street production does it with panache”
On 11th October 2019, two days after Jermyn Street Theatre opened its new production, newspapers reported that former President of South Africa Jacob Zuma was to stand trial for corruption charges in relation to billion-pound arms deals. Charges against Zuma are not new; these same charges had simply been held off until now.
This is all very timely for The Ice Cream Boys. The sweet name belies the murky political intrigue at its heart. The single act play posits a meeting between two architects of the rainbow nation’s modern history: Zuma and his former intelligence services mastermind, Ronnie Kasrils.
In Gail Louw’s new play, we’re asked to enter into the fantasy of Kasrils and Zuma meeting in the present day. They’re old men now, their paths crossing in a starched hospital room as they both await tests and treatments for the sorts of conditions that come to men in their eighties. Zuma reports that he’s slow to pass water (‘Prostate’, he says grimly) and Kasrils that he has a possible skin melanoma after ‘all that time in the sun’. But the men, former allies, have plenty of unresolved differences. Cue a complex but taut psychological interplay, as the pair play metaphorical (and literal) chess and debate lives spent steeped in divisions of race and class.
Set design (Cecilia Trono) is simple but clever, neatly invoking a clinical white hotel room that acts as a kind of purgatory. The men are left alone to spar but for occasional interruptions by their nurse – and their past. When history intrudes, often in the form of painful memories, lighting (by Tim Mascall) shifts, jarring back to the cool, sanitised hospital room after.
The two male leads – Andrew Francis as Zuma and Jack Klaff as Kasrils – hold the stage with astonishing personality. Klaff, especially, is spellbinding, using his whole physicality to invoke Kasrils and maximising his passing resemblance to the man. The South African accents, so often mangled, are almost faultless, and the charisma such that we find ourselves in a bind as to whether to warm to or despise these deeply flawed individuals.
It might be easy to overlook the third player here; Bu Kunene as Thandi, the nurse tending to her patients with increasing exasperation. The play has Thandi transforming into numerous other characters, appearing magically transformed each time – from Zuma’s mother to Nelson Mandela, Kunene delivers with skill and a quiet certainty. So understated is her performance, especially as an increasingly steely Thandi, and so in contrast to the bombast of the Zuma and Kasrils characters, that it shows a real talent for handling sensitive characterisation. It’s also essential to see a woman here, playing and representing the many women who were implicated and caught up in – and harmed by – the political and personal machinations of the men.
The politicians appear variously as children, laughing and singing in fond waves of nostalgia and petulant when denied ice cream, and as uncompromising despots debating solutions for their divided country. Each is misty-eyed at memories of the women who influenced them – but in the next breath, we’re graphically reminded of Zuma’s rape accusation (dismissed in court but presented as near-fact here, with Zuma barely bothering to deny it).
And this is the truth of politics; complicated, messy issues led by complicated, messy and perhaps ultimately irredeemable individuals. There’s never been a better time to make this study, and the Jermyn Street production does it with panache.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Robert Workman
The Ice Cream Boys
Jermyn Street Theatre until 2nd November
Previously reviewed at this venue: