Theatre review: Shrapnel, fortyfivedownstairs

A production that celebrates Natalie Gamsu and invites the Jewish South African community to recall memories of their formative years.
Natalie Gamsu. Photo: Marija Ivkovic. A person smiling brightly wearing a red top and black skirt, which she is holding in her hand.

The deep and sultry voice of Natalie Gamsu sparks off her one woman show – Shrapnel. Sharing vignettes of her life, Gamsu wades through a plethora of heavy topics that make reading the show’s warnings, found on the venue website, well worthwhile. Woven throughout these topics delivered with wit and good humour, Gamsu paints a picture of Apartheid South Africa.

The production has no overall narrative arc – Gamsu shares vignettes that jump between time, place and emotion. Lots of themes and topics are addressed but all, besides the need for familial love and validation, told through Gamsu’s relationship with her mother, are left without conclusion. In this way Gamsu maintains an air of mystery; we know events occurred but not how, if at all, they impacted her and continue to do so today. Despite this, Gamsu’s magnetism as a performer keeps the audience engaged. 

With a life like Gamsu’s it seems apt that Shrapnel harks back to smoky cabaret joints where Bohemian performers would regale the crowd with off the cuff memories of their wild and shocking youth in the wee hours of the morning. Creating this atmosphere, it’s a shame Shrapnel only includes two songs and a couple interludes. Given Gamsu’s unique tone and searing delivery when the piano starts to play, this sparse song list feels like a missed opportunity. 

With so few musical numbers, the lack of movement, blocking, props or any staging becomes more apparent. Gamsu presents an oratorical style of storytelling that relies on her dramatic voice work and sincerity to maintain a sense of performance, rather than a long form speech. 

Read: Theatre review: Samuel Beckett and the Rainbow Girl, St Martin’s Theatre

For Jewish South Africans, and the families of Jewish South Africans, this will be more than enough. The experiences and memories of living under Apartheid that Gamsu shares; the references to Jacarandas, Pap, the Tokoloshe … these people and places are rife for sparking memories of days gone by – good and bad. 

For others, Gamsu injects just enough humour and variety of stories that the show doesn’t overstay its welcome. 

Shrapnel provides emotionally affective glimpses into the many lives of Gamsu but moves through the jagged pieces thrown on stage too haphazardly to deliver much beyond a celebration of Gamsu’s wild ride to Australia. 

Produced by Kadimah Yiddish Theatre
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Writer: Natalie Gamsu and Ash Flanders
Performer: Natalie Gamsu

Tickets: $35-$49

Shrapnel is performed at fortyfivedownstairs until 23 June.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00