Review: Fela!

8 Jan

In a change of tack that I think is apt for the new year, I will begin 2011 and a regrettably long blogging hiatus, with a London-based review of the musical Fela! that I saw this week at Southbank’s National Theatre.

When I have mentioned this show to some of my ill-cultured friends, the response has invariably been surprise at the misguided notion that there is now a musical hit based on Shakespeare’s Othello.  I want to dispel this notion at the get-go, though who knows what Lloyd-Webber may be working on at the moment.

Fela! is a musical based on the life of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian Afrobeat musician who might be described – if somewhat reductively – as Nigeria’s answer to Bob Marley. Like Bob, Fela was a black musician whose political music transcended his own country in a time when racial equality was not what it is today.  Iconic, not just for his music, but for his twenty-seven wives and the Lagos Shrine within which they lived, Fela’s life story is rich with theatrical opportunity.

In the show, this opportunity is seized with such gusto that the audience feels not only like spectators, but like a part of the life that is musically depicted for them. From the very moment we sat down, the stage band and dancers had already begun to build a tantalising atmosphere that it would be impossible not to feel a part of. The buzz of anticipation was not one that is always seen in big shows, and to add to the colour and sound coming from the stage, were the posters and large video screen plastering the walls of the theatre, that depicted still and moving images of Fela, his mother and other players in Fela’s Afrobeat and political movements.

When Fela himself came on (played by hugely charismatic Brit Rolan Bell), it really felt like we were in the presence of a great star. He led the way telling a story whose path did not follow any one straight line, but which jumped from event to event with surreal yet convincing talks with his hugely influential late mother, Funmilayo, represented not only by actress Melanie Marshall, but also by a portrait that loomed large above the stage, eerily glowing whenever Funmilayo was mentioned.

Fela! masterfully avoided the kind of cheesiness that is so often synonymous with musical theatre, by weaving music throughout every facet of the play so that it was not just a story-telling device, or an opportunity for singing along, but an essential part of the very feeling and essence of the show.

As Fela, Bell sometimes spoke, sometimes sang, without there ever being a significant diversion from one to the other, and the amazing dances that were performed by the Shrine’s ever-present ‘area boys’ and Queens never seemed contrived, only a natural part of the show’s rhythm. The audience was encouraged to join in, and was for the most part, shaken out if its initial shyness. By the end of the evening, Bell/Fela’s calls for us to sing back  to him (‘Yeah yeah!’) were heartily, rather than tentativeley responded to.  I would have liked to see an audience, not bothered by English sensibilities,   getting involved in the dancing and singing of Fela! but cannot pretend that I was at the forefront of the audience participators. Never-the-less, the change in audience participation by the end of the show was itself, testament to the show’s triumph.

The only negative comment that I could make about Fela! was its length, which had me waning towards the end, but for everything else this is forgiven. I would absolutely recommend that anyone see this show, even if they do go expecting a musical take on a Shakespeare classic.


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