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Review: The Suitcase at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

“Dreamers from the village come for the milk and honey. It’s all gone,” says a philosophising street drunk towards the conclusion of this tale of hope and heartache from Market Theatre Johannesburg.

But what would you do, and how far would you go to hold on to that dream? And can you face the consequences of one spur-of-the-moment decision?

The Suitcase, concluding a tour of the North of England in Liverpool this week, is a slight, straightforward story of dreams dreamt and dashed, told with heart and humanity and against the backdrop of an exquisite guitar and vocal soundscape composed by the great Hugh Masekela.

It’s 1950s Apartheid South Africa, and a Romeo and Juliet from the countryside – Timi (Siyabonga Caswell Thwala) and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) – head for the bright lights of big city Durban with aspirations for a better life.

The Suitcase. Photographs by Andrew Billington

Dazzled and dazed by the hustle and bustle, the wide-eyed newbies find a lowly love nest in a house owned by Mlotshwa (Molatlhegi Desmond Dube) and set about trying to feather it.

But the city isn’t about to make it easy for the young lovers.

While it takes a while to get going, when it does there’s a sense of movement and energy both in the action and the dialogue which then slows in sympathy with the slow crushing of Timi’s spirit by the city’s relentless adversity.

When the chance comes to change his fortunes, he grabs it with both hands, literally, but the city, like the house, isn’t about to let him win.

Thwala handles Timi’s physical and spiritual decline with consummate care, his face and figure crumpling a little bit more with each humiliation, while Mbangeni’s Namhla retains an aura of hope, until all hope is gone.

There is good storytelling support from Dube and Nhlanhla John Late as the talkative neighbour Pitso, while the trio of singers, a kind of South African Greek chorus, and left-handed guitar player Bheki Khosa produce some gorgeous harmonies.

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