Friday, 26 November 2010

Review: Fela!, National Theatre, London

The theatre musical is not top of my list of ideal nights out. Cheery tunes to keep the spirits up and uplifting story lines with happy endings do much to please tourists and families but personally I've found them to be a thoroughly dispiriting experience unleashing my inner cynic (and I'm sure I'm not alone). OK, so there are exceptions (I did enjoy Avenue Q) but it would take a fairly unique series of circumstances to get me along.

Amazingly that unique series of circumstances has manifested itself in Fela! A stage musical based around the life of Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. Firstly, it focuses on an artist whose music I love. Second, the sheer size of Kuti's musical entourage allows for justifiable ensemble pieces. Third the subject matter is dark and racy (How would they deal with excessive marijuana use, prostitution, police intimidation and the frankly depressing outcome of the death of not only the main character but also his mother?) The show has already been a huge hit on Broadway and now arriving at London's National Theatre I had a deep desire to see it.

For those who don't know, Kuti was born in Nigeria in 1938 and following a radical upbringing and time in the UK and the USA he created his own fusion of American and African sounds to create a new hypnotic sound called Afrobeat. His relationship with the existing military regime in Nigeria upon his return became increasingly difficult as he spoke out against industrial corruption and exploitation of the people. This tension culminated in a raid on his compound by over 1000 police officers in 1977 which resulted in his mother being thrown from an upstairs window and killed. Kuti is fascinating on many levels - as a musical innovator, as a political radical, as a consumate lover (he notoriously married 27 women) and arguably as a bigot as he was strongly homophobic (this last angle perhaps unsurprisingly not covered in this particular production). Over a million people attended his funeral in 1997. Clearly this was a life full of incident and worthy subject matter for such an examination.

I'm pleased to report that the production is like the man himself - vibrant and uncompromising. The audience is drawn in immediately with Fela's posse congregating in the stalls and drifting through the audience before taking to the stage to perform a series of increasingly impressive dance routines. The first hour goes by in a blur as the stage is awash with colour and sound. The energy of the cast is electrifying and the blur of tap dancing, booty shaking, twirling and shadow boxing is a joy to behold.

Everything about the production is played to perfection. The set (a combination of Shrine memorabelia and black historical icons) is beautiful as are the primary colours of the costumes. The script is well paced and despite the need to pack in a wide range of subject matter, the narrative arc works well. The dancing, as already mentioned, is out of this world. The real highlight though is the performance of Sahr Ngaujah in the title role. Watching him you find yourself momentarily forgetting that this isn't actually Flea himself. The visual resemblance is uncanny and his ability, like Kuti's, to hold a crowd is captivating. There are also excellent supporting performances from Paulette Ivory and Melanie Marshall as his American lover and his mother respectively.

The first half of the production is particularly good. There is an excellent segment on Fela's voyage of musical discovery through listening to Tubby Hayes and John Coltrane while in London to his politicisation in America and these factor's contribution to the evolution of Afrobeat. The second half is inevitably darker with the focus on the police raid on his home following his writing of the classic Zombie and the death of his mother. Fela retaliates by placing her coffin on the steps of the Government building.

The show isn't flawless - there are a number of angles touched upon which aren't fully explored (most interestingly the conflict between the Afro-American and black Africa's own vision of Africa).  Aficionados of Afrobeat would also be critical of the cutting down of 15 minute long songs to about 5 minutes in order to keep the story flowing therefore sacrificing the opportunity to suck people into the hypnotic quality of the music. However, these issues are understandable - the show is almost 3 hours long as it is - to dig any deeper would be impossible if the broad story of Kuti's life is to be told. Those who love Afrobeat would be better served going to see one of the numerous Afrobeat bands (Femi Kuti's Positive Force or Antibalas for example) but this production will expose the wonderful legacy of Kuti to a much wider audience.

Any quibbles though are minor. This feels like a landmark production in both subject matter (to have a National Theatre audience giggling about sharing spliffs and inspecting shit feels strangely subversive) and performance (the sheer energy  and audience engagement transmitted is utterly captivating). This is a show worthy of the man himself and praise doesn't come any higher than that.

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