Joburg People – 15 Minutes with Tobie Cronje

26 Oct 2017
Tobie Cronje as Gepetto in Janice Honeyman's Pinocchio the Pantomime Adventure

Ahead of his performance in this year's festive season theatre smash hit - Janice Honeyman's Pinocchio the Ultimate Pantomime Adventure - we met up with South Afrcian acting legend Tobie Cronje at Joburg Theatre to talk music, comedy and the art of cross dressing.

Dressed in well-loved jeans and a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up, it is hard to reconcile the soft-spoken Tobie Cronje who waits for the ladies to take their seat before him, with the larger-than-life public persona South Africa has come to adore.

Cronje has been in the South African film industry for over 30 years, making his debut in the 1973 Afrikaans comedy Die Sersant en die Tiger Moth. 44 years later Cronje is still making movies, his latest being an art house adaptation of celebrated South African poet Christian Bernard's Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey. Despite acting in both Afrikaans and English, Cronje still feels most comfortable in Afrikaans “it is a more earthy, more common language you can play around with.”

Cronje returns to the world of theatre (in English) this summer for a rerun of Janice Honeyman's pantomime Pinocchio, which premiered in 2009 to critical acclaim. This production is Janice Honeyman’s 30th festive pantomime, and as Cronje says “it’s jolly good fun.” Pinocchio returns with much of its original cast, including household names like Chi Mhende who shot to fame for her gender-bending role as Wandile Radebe on prime-time soapie Generations: The Legacy, and a fresh script that has been updated to include plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to current political scandals and other classic comedy fodder.

Janice Honeyman is not called the Queen of South African Pantomime without reason, her mastery of the art form is second-to-none. The play offers something for everyone, from clever puns to risqué humour that will leave you gasping 'Oh no they didn’t!', catchy songs and a musical repertoire that runs the full gamut from hip hop to golden oldies that the older generation will love. The choreography meanwhile is energetic and eclectic, in the welcome song alone there is salsa, breakdancing and ballet, with a couple of dance moves that are sure to be replicated on dance floors beyond the theatre.

Cronje and Honeyman have worked together on several pantomimes and in many of them Cronje plays 'The Dame'. It is, as he readily admits, an intriguing role.

"There’s something special in every one” he says of his many female metamorphoses, which have included an old witch, the beautiful queen in Snow White and a motherly nurse in Sleeping Beauty. It is almost a form of “social commentary on being a woman... ​when you’re a man playing a woman, you get to overdo it” he explains, describing the unique moment while sitting in wardrobe and make-up before the show that a woman slowly appears in the mirror before him.

This time around however Cronje plays a comic male role, that of the carpenter Gepetto Spoletto, bringing to the character his own love of woodwork “I love wood, and I work in small bits” as well as a fondness for puppetry. Cronje made marionettes in his teens, crafting heads from old light globes and papier mache. He still has one unfinished marionette (all it needs are legs) which he brushes off shyly as "just those things”.

Having grown up in a family of musicians and tutored music to kids in Katlehong while in his 20s, Cronje also particularly enjoys the pantomime's rich musical score, another hallmark of Honeyman's productions, and the energy it brings to the stage.

"The moment you hear the overture and people singing, your spirit goes up and your heart starts pumping. For me, music is the kind of language that really speaks to me.”

With several decades of experience in the South African comedy industry, Cronje has some interesting advice for aspiring comedians; “Split yourself in two, and one of those must be an onlooker at what you’re doing. The guy who’s doing mustn’t think he’s funny. The guy who’s watching must think you’re funny.”

Cronje recounts his first day in University when he had to introduce himself and had the class laughing in seconds. He didn’t understand why he was funny, and it took many years before he learnt the reason “There’s no point in being funny, and not know how to control it.”

Despite travelling extensively both nationally and internationally, Cronje is still in love with the crazy metropolis that is Joburg. "The vibe in Joburg for me is really great, there's a lot of energy and things are always going". A not-so-strict vegan “I started being a vegetarian because I was too poor to eat meat... I do eat sushi, mostly vegetarian sushi but sometimes I'll even add a piece of fish. I'm not that strict", he is currently infatuated with Conscious 108, a vegan restaurant in Greenside and another local favourite Greenside Café. However when free time comes around he's a homebody “I like home, I don’t see enough of it in the day".

And the secret to his breezy fashion style? A friend in Durban brings him shirts from the second-hand traders and vintage shop finds. Cronje by his own admission has "far too many" jackets; he finds them at a second-hand store in Alberton where the clothes are charged by the weight “I found a jacket for R50!” he says with a mischievous smile.

Janice Honeyman's Pinocchio the Ultimate Pantomime Adventure is showing at Joburg Theatre from Nov 11 to Dec 30. Tickets cost from R185-R315.


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