Southwark Playhouse, London

© Richard Lakos

© Richard Lakos

Klipdrift brandy, the `kick’ of choice for two Jo’burg teenagers, Thandi and Yolandi. Two `klippies’, as different as you can imagine from each other: Thandi, black, privileged, one parent background; Yolandi, white, tearaway with an alcoholic mother and smalltime criminal brother.

Not quite what you’d be expecting of a South African tale for today. Jessica Siân’s debut, coming-of-age play – first seen in a rehearsed reading at Suffolk’s estimable High Tide festival – is a a stunner, confounding preconceptions at every corner.

Jo’burg, with the unenviable reputation as one of South Africa’s most violent cities. The stereotypical picture would have Thandi coming from a township, Yolandi from a well-heeled, gated white urban safehouse.

But Siân’s theatrical symbol of modern South Africa tells us more about the complexities of adolescence than its political landscape although between the lines, you’ll find plenty of cultural clues.

Like the father of modern South African drama before her, Athol Fugard (Sizwe Bansi is Dead, The Island etc), Siân’s tale is forged partly, by her own admission, out of the white guilt of apartheid. And like him, she tells her tale by concentrating on the personal, the very rough-and-tumble nature of Thandi and Yolandi’s relationship, formed at the school-gates, developed under pressure of high expectation (on Thandi’s side), hopelessness (on Yolandi’s) and a sense of the potency of the land that holds them, the parched land, the land reborn with grass when the rains come.

Water, rain, renewal – and the joys of swimming – runs through Klippies with a fierce beauty. In short, sharp, desultory exchanges infused with soliloquies bordering on the poetic, Siân gradually exposes the sometimes violent push and pull of this unlikely relationship, Thandi’s awakening lesbian feelings counterbalanced by Yolandi’s unsafe sex with a boy in her class. Both regard the other’s sexual proclivities as gross, hateful. And distressingly, Thandi’s lesbianism is equated in her mind with a superstition of demons inherited at birth.

Yet for all their differences of character and backgrounds, a deep bond emerges based on a need for friendship and escape from family (Thandi is beaten up by her father on discovering her sexual nature). There is more that they share than which divides them.

A subtle metaphor for the equality to which South Africa’s democracy still aspires, director Chelsea Walker’s gives Klippies terrific style, bathing it in vivid primary colours and a musical blast of rap rave.

© Richard Lakos

© Richard Lakos

Beautifully played by Adelayo Adedayo, who created an equally beguiling portrait of a young early 20th century Afro-American, Rachel in the play of the same name – the first to be professionally produced by an African-American woman, Angelina Weld Grimké rediscovered and presented at the Finborough Theatre last year – Samantha Colley’s gawky, awkward, angry makes Yolandi an uncompromising, wonderfully contrasting runaway/sister-in-arms.

© Richard Lakos

© Richard Lakos

Sometimes the strength of the South African accents threatens to get in the way but at only 90 minutes long, Klippies remains captivating. Funny and raw, charmingly so, and true.

You’ll take these two to your hearts.

First published in Londongrip, May 2015

Klippies runs at Southwark Playhouse to June 6, 2015