Theatre Review: Fela!

Posted on: 21 December 2010 by Rhian Mainwaring

Take the pounding rhythms of Afrobeat, a blend of funk, jazz and traditional West Indian drumming and mix with a scathing attack on the corrupt and repressive military dictatorships that rule Nigeria and much of Africa, and the result is the exuberant and thought provoking new musical Fela!, directed and choreograped by Bill T Jones at the NT’s Olivier auditorium.

Fela!Not exactly a household name in the UK, Fela Kuti who pioneered this distinctive new brand of music is held in high esteem in his native Nigeria. Sent to London in the 1950s to study medicine, he switched to music and led a hedonistic life. After being radicalised by Black Power in America, he returned to Nigeria and took on the generals who were running the country with incendiary  and provocative songs.

A thorn in the government’s side, they exacted their revenge in 1977 by burning down the compound where he lived in Lagos, which he declared an independent state, arrested and tortured many of his followers and ordered that his activist mother be thrown out of a first-floor window, of which she later died.

Passion and politics combine in this uplifting, at times hypnotic, musical with the auditorium theatre transformed into the legendary nightclub, the Shrine, while film archive and posters on the walls inform us of the news events that took place and further enhance the sense of realism. The story, though, is flimsy and confused, moving back and forth in time and would have benefitted from a stronger sense of narrative and more depth.

But, having said that, there are few musicals around with such drive and energy – the dancing is ecstatic and sets the stage alight, thanks to Bill T Jones’s splendid choreography, and the music more than impressive with a first-rate 12-piece band delivering stylish arrangements by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean.

Sahr Nguajah brings a real intensity and charisma to the role of Fela , the rebel who revolutionised African music, who could be abrasive one minute and soulful the next. Indeed one of the most moving scenes is when Fela finally meets his dead mother in a Yoruban ritual, and it makes you feel his struggle has been really worthwhile, although I wish the show had given us a greater perspective on his real qualities and weaknesses. Nguajah is strongly supported by Jacqui Dubois playing as Sandra Isadore, a close friend of the Black Panthers with whom he has a relationship.

Despite its drawbacks this is a musical with true verve and panache which reminds you that popular music is not something that can be enjoyed one day and forgotten the next, but can actually be a matter of life and death.

Photos of the original Broadway Cast, by Monique Carboni

Theatre reviews by Laurence Green

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