The deep-rooted irony of this modern classic by Athol Fugard starts with its title. For the “master “ is a teenage white schoolboy and the “boys” are grown-up black employees.
The anachronism and injustice of apartheid and racial prejudice are laid bare in this customer-free afternoon tearoom in a South African park in 1950.
The tearoom is ruled over in his parents’ temporary absence by the teenager Harold – or Hally as everyone calls him. And what starts as a gentle, heart-warming comic piece about the rigours of a ballroom dancing contest, in which both the black servants are competitors, soon becomes a battle of emotions, intellect, ignorance and injustice and all set to the tempo of the heavy rain beating down on the cafe’s sloping glass roof.
The 90-minute story has distinctly different moods- happiest when Hally , sharply and uncompromisingly played by Anson Boon, remembers with fond detail his younger days in a boarding house with the two black servants.
But his raging adolescent insecurity , bolstered by his personal sense of injustice at having to look after his drunken invalid father, bubble to the surface and we see his unconscious prejudice openly manifest itself, changing the three men’s relationship with dire consequences.
A racist joke sparks devastating and seemingly irrevocable results, and we are horrified by its enactment. Thought the theme of dance starts as an evocation of art and skill, not just entertainment, it is cruelly misrepresented by the white boy as some kind of uncontrolled release of primitive instincts.
Lucian Msamati literally never sets a foot wrong as he glides among the cafe tables, teaching the younger more top-heavy Willie, gently and warmly played by Hammed Animashaun.
In the end we feel that Sam’s dignity and humanity will win through- as we now know historically it did- that as Willie says “ tomorrow will be fine “, though he says it with uncertainty ringing in his voice.
All three characters were real people in Fugard’ s life – his mother ran such a tea room and he himself had the nickname Hally.
And though the jury may have retired yet again to reach a verdict on South Africa’s uncertain future, at least in the play’s finale there is the exuberance and grace of ballroom dancing to send us out into the night rejoicing.
Master Harold and the boys is in repertoire at the National Theatre, London until 17 December.
For more info or to book tickets see the website here