Pieter‑Dirk Uys was on his way to McGregor in 1995 when he took a wrong turn. He arrived in Darling, ordered a schnitzel at Zum Schatzi and outside the restaurant met Dale Gremels, who had seen his show at the Baxter the week before.
“The cow is still in the meadow”, she said. “In the meantime, let me show you the town.”
And so she took him around the village, pointing out the charming Victorian houses nestled in the cosy elbow of the hills. She turned a corner and there amid wild elephant grass, shutters askew, stood the most beautiful wreck of an old house that Uys had ever seen. He bought it while still in the car, even after being told that there were snakes under the floorboards! But instinct had never let him down.
Pieter‑Dirk Uys left Darling some hours later, having had a wonderful schnitzel and now the owner of a derelict old house.
It took six months to renovate the house and as magic would have it, Darling had all the people to do the job: a young man who specialised in Victorian restoration, a Danish electrician, a wizard‑carpenter and a community of artisans who scraped, oiled and gently put the old house together like plastic surgeons.
Once Pieter‑Dirk Uys had moved from Cape Town, Jochi Gremels casually mentioned that the old station building in Arcadia Road was now empty. The station had closed in the 1970s. Since then, various people had used the building for a variety of things, and after having been derelict for some years, it had become the workshop of that wizard‑carpenter, who had now decided to move on.
When Uys, already settled in his house up the road, was asked if, to hold off the demolishers, he could perhaps use the building as a storeroom, the dormant idea of having his own theatre was rekindled in his imagination. And so, in 1996, the old station building stepped into the pages of the unique and became reincarnated as Evita se Perron. Inspired by the legends of Argentina´s Evita Peron and our own Evita Bezuidenhout, this was the ideal place for a theatre. Besides, the word perron is Afrikaans for station platform!
For the first year, activity was centred around the small blik building in its strange colours next to the railway line. We inherited the colour schemes. When the station was derelict and rusted, concerned townsfolk looked in their garages and brought whatever paint they could find. So we proudly display pink, turquoise, blue and white as our international colours. The venue was hired (could it have been R80 a month?) and restructured with a small stage and enough space for twelve tables with chairs. The kitchen was squeezed into the small area at the back where the carpenter had kept his tools.
To look at the buildings today, with the two theatres, restaurant and bar, The Darling Trust office, Elsie Balt Art Gallery, Museum/Nauseum, Gravy Train Saloon, Station Gallery, Boerassic Park, and the community garden, Tannie se Tuin, one finds it hard to remember that this was once just a rural railway station that served the best meat pies in the Swartland. And that in spite of Evita’s use of the word skattie, the town has always been called Darling.
“I’ve opened a theatre in Darling, darling.” Pieter‑Dirk Uys said to his friends in Cape Town.
“Darling, you’re mad,” they replied.
Yes. Mad is good. It means that no one has thought of it yet. And so Evita Bezuidenhout launched her now legendary monologue on Afrikaner history: Tannie Evita Praat Kaktus.
Daily goods trains rumble by and everything shivers on the walls and shakes on the tables. Guests think it´s just a sound effect, but when they see the approaching diesel monster, which looks as if it will plough into the building, they are thrilled and shocked. The cheek of it all!
As the train clatters by, the driver often waves a greeting to Evita, the most famous white woman in South Africa. After that first year of experimentation in 1996, the remainder of the gravel land was purchased, and the building was extended to include a restaurant‑cabaret venue. Architect Jakes de Villiers has kept the style of the original station in all of the additions, so people often think that they have all been here since the 19th century. By its tenth year, Evita se Perron could accommodate an audience of up to 130 people.
On weekends a variety of Pieter‑Dirk Uys shows are presented at lunchtime and in the evening, featuring his famous chorus line of political characters, some of whom have been with him since 1980. Of course, Mrs Evita Bezuidenhout is the superstar on the stage.
On the far side of the car park, Tannie se Tuin has become an integral part of daily life in Darling. Under the trees, no longer forgotten and dusty but lavish with leaves, the community rest on their way back to their homes from the banks, the shops and the bottle store, and there is a playground for kiddies centred round the old Land Rover donated by JC van der Westhuizen. A faux Renaissance statue of a nude lady (Is dit onse Ma Evita?) has become a good luck touchstone for the many who pass her by: Vryf aan haar tietie en maak ‘n wens!
On the other side of the compound, an eccentric art garden, called Boerassic Park, reflects humour through the display of political icons and symbols – from apartheid signs to a gravy train, led by a smiling Nelson Mandela as the happy engine. The garden also contains local crafts and artefacts specially made for inclusion in this wonderland of Mama kyk daar!
The Perron garden was designed by Dr Richard King and features many indigenous plants and shrubs, vet plante and bird life. Petal against plastic, these flowers thrive and grow, some by being watered, whilst others are dusted.
The only real animals that stalk the terrain are the Perron Cats. As all true theatres need a resident moggie, the first four furries (Marilyn, Moggie, Windgat and Die Koei) arrived within days of re‑launching the new additions to the old station. Over the years there have been as many as seven Perron felines. Our current three resident moggies are Marilyn (successor to the original Marilyn), Blondie and Ginger.
Celebrating its 21st year of existence, Evita se Perron has become an international port of call for visitors from all over the world. It was recently featured on the BBC Travel Show and the five stars allocated the Perron in most travel books about South Africa mean that the Pieter‑Dirk Uys shows are in English with refreshing sprinklings of Afrikaans, German, Dutch and American.