Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 16 November, 2010
This show contains over two dozen musical numbers in just over two and a half hours. This takes some doing, since the late Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s songs were so sprawling that that amount of time would accommodate maybe eight or nine of his recorded tracks; he was even more protracted when playing live at his Lagos club the Shrine – four numbers would fit into that time, if you were lucky. But arrangers Aaron Johnson and Jordan Mclean have worked wonders with medleys and even mash-ups, so that musical matters never seem rushed or filleted. The band are skilled at hitting the requisite Afrobeat groove, with tenor sax player Idris Rahman (to whose playing lead actor Sahr Ngaujah mimes) adroitly mimicking Kuti’s own phrasing on the instrument.
Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones’s book sets the show at a performance at the Shrine in 1978, at which Kuti is on the verge of quitting Nigeria after years of persecution for his political activism, culminating in a raid on his home compound at which his 77-year-old mother was fatally thrown from a second-storey window. Fela was not the only political activist in his family, but he was the stroppiest, as the whistle-stop biography of the show demonstrates. His concerts were overtly political, inveighing in song against the corruption and oppression of successive Nigerian governments, whether nominally civilian or overtly military.
It is an unlikely subject for either a National Theatre presentation or a Broadway show (this production originated off-Broadway before graduating upwards). What makes it work is Jones’ direction and choreography. Kuti’s lyrics are about politics, but his music is all about dancing. Jones animates the cast, including nine to a dozen backing vocalist “Queens” (in fact, in 1978 Kuti married 27 of his backing singers at once) in movements that combine traditional African elements with what used to be called “stepping” when performed to reggae and with plain and simple gettin’ on down.
In fact, it is when the show diverges most from its core that it weakens. It makes thematic sense that in Kuti’s 1969 Los Angeles encounter with, and radicalisation by, Black Panther activist Sandra Izsadore, the latter should sing in more of a soul/R&B idiom, but it feels out of place amid the Afrobeat; similarly a black-light “Orisa” sequence in which Fela journeys through the afterlife to question his late mother, who then sings the one original (i.e. inauthentic) number in the show.
The biography does not dig deep. Kuti’s dubious sexual politics are brushed aside with the ambiguous line, “I am not an easy man”; setting the show in 1978 eliminates the need to confront the fact that, even on his deathbed 19 years later from AIDS-related illness, he continued to deny the existence of HIV. It is admirable that the rendition here of the great number “International Thief Thief” expands the original couple of names to indict a whole series of individual Nigerian presidents and multinational corporations; less so when the requiem for his mother, “Coffin For Head Of State”, is accompanied by the cast bringing onstage a succession of coffins some of which bear names such as Stephen Lawrence and Victoria Climbié (another simply reads “No cuts”)... acknowledgement becomes appropriation. But these are passing blemishes on an evening that is admirable and above all enjoyable. Yeh yeh!

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2010

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage