The opening-night speech from the South African High Commissioner stressed that Umoja appears on the London stage in the context of other recent productions from that country – The Mysteries, The Island and Woza Albert! This is both accurate and astute, as it underlines that Umoja has only ever set out to provide part of the picture.
It is easy to criticise the show's lack of engagement with social issues: a brief allusion to the era of pass-book laws, a gospel choir who all appear to be wearing AIDS ribbons without any comment made, and that's yer lot. "The spirit of togetherness" is the meaning of "Umoja" and the show's subtitle, but the opposite by which it was for so long defined – apartheid – is not even mentioned. Nor is there any story at all to speak of; what we get is a simple tour d'horizon of South African music, from tribal snake and shield dances through shebeen culture and township jive to contemporary versions of hip-hop and techno.
And this is the point, of course. To dwell on what isn't there is to damn Umoja for not doing what it never set out to do anyway. It may be on the fluffy side in big-picture terms, with elderly narrator Hope Ndaba reminiscing with us like a favourite granddad... but the point of Todd Twala and Thembi Nyandeni's show is celebration, and in that department it overflows. A cast of over 30 sing, dance and drum up a storm in a succession of more or less discrete sequences. Collen Mavundhla becomes a kind of lanky Zulu Max Wall as the compere of an old-style talent competition, Lindiwe Ntuli shakes her stuff impressively in a Johannesburg street scene, and Siboniso Dladla and Jackie Mazibuko lead the soaring gospel choir. It would take a heart of stone not to clap and whoop along.
Umoja's original West End run, at the Shaftesbury late last year, was curtailed because it proved simply too exuberant, leading to complaints from local residents about late-night noise. There are fewer people living in the neighbourhood of its new home at the Queen's Theatre, but it will be interesting to see how much of the boisterousness penetrates through the partition wall to the Gielgud right next door and that most muted and English of presentations, Humble Boy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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