A Handful of Keys Review, Pieter Toerien's Theatre on the Bay

A HANDFUL OF KEYS. Witty four-handed piano revue. With Roelof Colyn, James Smith and guest Taryn Harkness. Script and direction Ian von Memerty. Costumes Lynn Driver, Morne van der Scguyff. Sound Megan Levy. Lighting David Limbert. At Theatre on the Bay until 8 October.


I count myself among 420 000 fans who, in the past 23 years, have seen this witty music feast. I’ve seen “originals” Ian von Memerty and Bryan Schimmel perform Malcolm Terrey’s script under Alan Swerdlow’s direction, wearing Margo Fleisch’s flamboyant costumes. As von Memerty and Schimmel moved on, the keyboard experts comprised Jonathan Roxmouth, Jeremy Quickfall or Roelof Colyn.

Now, 19 year-old James Smith joins Colyn to play/sing/joke through Von Memerty’ revised script and direction. Over and above dialogue and music changes, new less flashy costumes by Lynn Driver and Morne van der Schuyff are worn, and Taryn Harkness (why such a plain outfit?) appeared as guest pianist. The question is, is von Memerty’s trimmed version just as valid?

Talented, finely tuned duo

That’s difficult to answer. Not that Smith and Colyn aren’t a talented and finely-tuned duo. But behind me, inconsiderate patrons continually talked, clinked glasses and inappropriately cheered.  Their noise, during the first act, so seriously intruded my visual/ aural senses I’m hesitant to pass honest critical comment.

A Handful of Keys Review, Pieter Toerien's Theatre on the BayA youthful sparkle

Fortunately, management organised different seats for the second half. What a difference. Relaxed, I could engage with Smith and Colyn’s vocal harmonies and physical antics. Smith, described as a 1.98m giant, with hair to match Einstein’s, a mouth used to make remarkable shapes and sounds, and long fingers to race up and down the keyboard like a mouse chased by a cat, has rare talent. Matched against the more experienced Colyn, Smith came out equal.

Except his energetic approach to a somewhat “camp” script brought a youthful sparkle to a show beginning to show its age.

Von Memerty’s stage setting is stripped down to two Yamaha electric pianos in front of a tubular curtain lit by David Limbert’s multi-colours.

Levy’s sound is top class

Megan Levy’s sound is top class. Led by “anchor man” Colyn, the first half begins with the piano’s history from its 60 key harpsichord days to its present 88 keys. A few finger exercises launched the pair into Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer, before frolicking with (among others) master composers Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Debussy. Picking on these men’s mannerisms, sometimes solo, sometimes together, Smith and Colyn comically threaded these through musical variations these greats would never compose… watch out for their take on fragile, tubercular Chopin.

The second half, journeying through the modern era, takes the Mickey out of Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill; rhythm-blues-soul singer Stevie Wonder’s side-to-side head movement; a rocking Beatles’ Yesterday; pop singer Elton John’s Funeral for a Friend; Miriam Makeba’s popular Click Song; rock star Brian Molko’s Without You I am Nothing and excerpts from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera.

Although occasionally too near the bone, Smith and Colyn deliver Brian Molko’s Without You I am Nothing on Memerty’s dialogue with the snappy humour he intended. A brilliant pianist himself, Von Memerty’s best scene spans an 11-minute history of 116 musicals. Not only hilarious, in concept it’s  remarkable. Billy Joel’s Piano Man wound up a mirthful Handful of Keys.

Be warned. Keep your wits awake if you don’t want to miss the wacky quips!

What: A Handful of Keys
Where: Pieter Toerien’s Theatre on the Bay, Camps Bay, Cape Town
When: Until 8 October, 2017
Book: www.computicket.co.za
Web: https://www.pietertoerien.co.za/