Karoo Moose, Tricycle Theatre, London


The times they aren't a-changing

There's a moose on the loose in the Karoo and he's coming to get you... so the villagers of Noxton right down on the Eastern Cape set out to get him first. It's like a Roald Dahl story, but with magic realism: the fate of the moose is bound up with that of his chief executioner, a village girl called Thozama who has been gang-raped by her father's drinking buddies.

If that sounds a bit dark, be reassured that Lara Foot Newton's production of her own play is almost too quick and light-hearted for its own good. It's also staged with flair and fluency.

The moose, a gift from the Swedish ambassador, has escaped en route to the zoo. The point is that the moose is an unknown quantity and gods and ancestors might be piqued by his capture, let alone his consumption. No such dignified status applies to Thozama, and the play – not all that convincingly – transfers the status of another species to her final liberation.

In killing and cooking the moose, and serving him up in nice meaty chunks, Thozama assumes a new strength, and she leads the other children away from the village of old stories and old superstitions. The staging is a sleight of hand to disguise the flaws in this narrative.

The show comes from the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town and has won all the awards going. But despite the Tricycle's excellent record in keeping us up to date with post-apartheid theatre, we haven't really seen anything that suggests things have moved on all that much from Athol Fugard or indeed Nelson Mandela.

In this respect, Karoo Moose deliberately evokes a backward-looking culture. Thozama's mother was killed by a farmer. Her own father barters her for a debt repayment. She gives birth to her child in a drum, and the schoolchildren seem destined only for either destitution or a fantasy life on the road with the symbolic heroine.

Maybe that's the message. Nothing has changed. Nor, do you feel, has it done so in theatrical terms. Although the moose is thrillingly invoked by the six African actors wielding huge hairy moose horns, the representation of childish innocence, old villager head-scratching and comedy policemen is trapped in cliché and caricature.

It's a classic conundrum in the theatre. Do you tell old stories in new ways or new stories in old ways? Karoo Moose is at least an interesting attempt to darken the picturesque while remaining ambiguous about an obviously non-vanishing repressive society.

The actors are immensely likeable and appropriately spell-binding, especially Chuma Sopotela as a fierce Thozama. Thami Mbongo is an irate schoolteacher, Mfundo Tshazibane the hapless father figure and Mdu Kweyama the main moose man.

The play is recounted with the narrative thread switching between the actors. And the infectious township music is arranged by Bongile Mantsai.

To 11 July (020-7328 1000; www.tricycle.co.uk )

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