This disarmingly modest South African musical by David Kramer – who had a big success here ten years ago with his Olivier Award-winning Kat and the Kings – is a tale of Koos Sas, the last bushman of Montagu, a small town a few hours’ drive from Cape Town.
Koos Sas was a legendary early 20th-century outlaw who was accused of murdering a white boss – wrongly, according to Kramer – and escaped jail, stealing sheep and living rough before being shot by a policeman on a farm near Springbok.
Kramer’s two-hour musical, performed in Afrikaans with sur-titles, and with additional material by Jody Abrahams – who appears as a country simpleton, Hendrik Skilpad – and Gaerin Hauptfleisch, makes a specific narrative of the chase; and a more general one of the practice of photographing skulls and bones to reinforce racialist research into the “bushman” or “hottentot”, in the Cape interior.
So, Koos Sas, winningly played and sung by Loukmaan Adams, is first seen standing by his own cranium on show in a museum. But the musical is drained of its own potency by this higher political purpose, as the bumptious, self-satisfied Scottish bounty hunter of Nicholas Ellenbogen pushes into the story-line, lining up skulls for his Viennese bosses.
Koos Sas has fallen in love with Hendrik’s sister, Lenie (sweetly played by Natalie Cervati), and the best of the songs chart this simple affection in jaunty, plaintive terms. The pursuant policeman (Robert Koen) enters on an equine sculpture of wire and metal – a sort of poor man’s “war horse” – in search of his very own Jean Valjean.
But this obsession is soon absorbed in the general blandness of the rest. And Kramer’s own production is severely handicapped, muffled indeed, by the microphoning of the actors, mysteriously amplified in order to maintain a consistent sound level with the pre-recorded musical accompaniment, mostly on acoustic guitar and accordion.
Koos Sas: Last Bushman of Montagu is a perfectly agreeable small-scale show, but nothing much to set the pulse racing, and after a while, each song sounds very much the same, rhythmically and melodically.