Saturday, 21 December 2013

Review: The Scottsboro Boys

I went to see a musical last night and I left the theatre viscerally angry.


That's not a sentence you see very often is it? In fact it's not very often that I see anything at the theatre that makes me feel as angry, as outraged and as sad as The Young Vic's superlative production of The Scottsboro Boys did.


Written by Kander and Ebb (of Cabaret and Chicago fame) and directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman (one of my theatre heroines, probably most famous as the director-choreographer of The Producers on Broadway), The Scottsboro Boys tells the disgusting true story of a group of nine young black men arrested on a baseless charge of raping two white women on a train in 1930s Alabama. The group were thrown into jail, tried multiple times and always found guilty despite the fact they had done nothing wrong and one of the women admitting that the rape accusation was an outright lie. Eventually some of the group were released and all of them were finally - posthumously - pardoned this year. (There are obviously far more detailed histories of the story online and you should read one of them.)


Not an obvious choice for a musical right? But in the prodigiously talented hands of its creative team it totally works. The story is told in the form of a traditional minstrel show, subverted by having an all black - with one exception - cast playing both black and white roles. The set consists of a semi circle of chairs (traditional in a minstrel show) which the cast use to create all of the settings for the story from the train the group are arrested on to the prison cells they're held in. The staging is devastatingly simple and effective and the subversion of the minstrel show stereotypes done very cleverly to really highlight how insidious and hateful the racism the group faced was.

The songs, as you'd expect from Kander and Ebb, are universally excellent. From the heartbreaking ballad Go Back Home to the defiant and angry Nothin' every one is skilfully written to combine the very necessary point the song is making with a cracking Broadway tune. Nowhere is this done to better effect than in Electric Chair, which combines the horror of the youngest of the group's (he was 13, think about that for a minute) nightmares about his death sentence with an absolutely mind boggling tap number. It really shouldn't work, but it does.

But the most devastating moment of the piece for me is the final titular track which combines the traditional minstrel cake walk with the story of what happened to the group. It's performed in blackface make up - how was that ever acceptable? - and combines the hopes and promises that the group would be free and live fantastic lives with the reality of life as an emotionally scarred black youth with a criminal record in the 1930s Deep South. The way each member of the group lists off what happens to them isn't overplayed or overdramatised and as a result is horrifically effective.


The quality of the staging and material is enhanced by an utterly superb ensemble cast. Standout performances for me came from Adebayo Bolaji as the group's angry young man Clarence Norris and Kyle Scatliffe as Haywood Patterson, effectively the group's leader. Scatliffe has the majority of the heavy lifting acting and singing-wise and carries it off faultlessly. His raw anger at the injustice done to him is electric and permeates everything he said, did or sang. If there's any justice in theatreland then he'll be a huge star. Bolaji was equally assured as Norris - the angriest of the group to begin with, desperate to take violent revenge on the white authority figures surrounding him who is heartbreakingly broken by the end of the piece. Every member of the - very young - cast deserves some recognition though as there really isn't a weak link amongst them.


All in all, I think The Scottsboro Boys is the best thing I've seen in London this year. I'd implore you to get a ticket, but sadly the run finishes tonight. Hopefully it will come back at some point and if it does you'll find me at the front of the ticket queue.

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