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Master Harold and the Boys (Play Review) Master Harold and the Boys (Play Review)
Master Harold and the Boys (Play Review)

Athol Fugard was known for his politically provocative plays that were an attack on the apartheid system, bringing him into constant conflict with the authorities, and confirming his reputation as ‘South Africa’s most accomplished playwright’ .


Master Harold”…and the Boys revived by the National Theatre is no different. It’s a tale of how long-established friendships can be ruined in an instant by the sceptre of racism and bigotry that is never too far from any interactions between the races in apartheid South Africa.


Set in a dingy Tea Room in Port Elizabeth delightfully detailed by the creative eyeo of Rajha Shakiry, we find waiters Willie and Sam, clearing tables and talking excitedly about the upcoming ballroom competition in which they are both participating.  In South Africa, ballroom dancing provided a space for cultural adaptation for the disenfranchised urban black majority.


Willie is lamenting that he doesn’t have a partner, whilst at the same time Sam is remonstrating him for beating his partners and therefore driving them away. Willie also is itching to practice his dance steps but is loathed to put his bus fare into the jukebox so commences to practice by himself under the watchful tutelage of Sam.


In walks the initial cheery seventeen year old schoolboy Master Harold (Hally as he’s affectionately called) who indulges in some witty banter about the ballroom dancing, philosophy, social reform as well reminiscing about the significance of Sam teaching him how to fly a kite.  It is obvious that there’s love and mutual respect between man and boy.


The mood turns ugly when Hally learns much to his anger and dismay that his crippled alcoholic father is returning home early from the hospital. He then turns his displeasure on Sam, getting into a heated jousting match about pointless of ballroom dancing, politics, the non-existence of a perfect society etc.


Unable to defend himself intellectually, Hally defaults to his boorish racist Afrikaner self, not only telling a racist joke but also spitting in Sam’s face as the situation becomes inflamed. He’s immediately sorry for his actions, but the damage has irrevocably been done and their friendship is damaged beyond repair.


Hammad Animashaun (Barbershop Chronicles) is admirable as the bumbling, gawky footed Willie, using his trademark comedic timing to full effect.


Anson Boon (The Alienist) is accomplished as the awkward know it all Hally. Always looking to, and relishing his supposedly superior intellect over his ‘boys’. However, his performance is not fully fleshed out. Floundering for the most parts to fully immerse himself in his role with a wavering unconvincing accent to top it all.

Lucian Msamati (Amadeus) is admirable but restrained in his role as Sam. Never displaying his full potential or the passionate he showed in some of his previous plays.


The production was slow-paced, with the action dipping to an almost boring standstill on occasions. Director Roy Alexander Weise (Nine Night) allowing the actors to seemingly perform with little direction or dramatic input. However, he did fully explore the meaning of friendship and how strong foundations can rapidly crumble over a single incident.


The display of racist aggression was not as shocking today as probably when it first premiered in 1982 as living in a digital world we see so many examples of this type of behaviour at the click of a mouse that we have become almost immune to it. Nonetheless, it still elicited gasps from certain sections of the audience.


Harold and the Boys, is a worthy attempt, standing out as a subtle yet distressing and unsettling reminder of the institutionalized racism, bigotry, and hatred that was the everyday experience of black people in apartheid South Africa that unfortunately, stills stands the test of time


21 Sept-17 Dec, ‘Master Harold’… and the boys, National Theatre, SE1 9PX, Tickets, and details: https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/master-harold-and-the-boys


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