There’s nothing like quite like a provocative and wholly unique hybrid of dance, theatre and music that explores the extravagant, decadent and rebellious world of an Afrobeat legend to get the Whingers nonplussed.
“If you could sum it up in one word,” enquired Andrew as the Whingers departed the National Theatre at what was for most of the audience the interval, “what would that word be?”
“Fela-ure!” trumpeted Phil, delighted to have been asked.
Sadly, it’s not strictly true which is just one reason why this particular reologism unlikely to make it into an episode of The Weakest Link which on Monday 1st November featured this exchange:
Anne Robinson : Shirley, in musicals, an unfavourable review by an online theatre critic referred to which Andrew Lloyd Webber production that opened in the West End in 2010 as “Paint Never Dries”?
What bliss it must be to be Shirley.
Anyway, to recap, Fela! isn’t a failure but as Andrew summed it up: “I think we can safely say that this production wasn’t written with us in mind.”
It’s a show for people who like this kind of music, people whose groove would be found under “World Music” in the record shops. Andrew has a Nat King Cole CD but Phil insists that that doesn’t count.
No, the Whingers’ groove is more of a deep rut, really, etched in a rarefied world that stopped turning circa Irving Berlin, so the sounds of the Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Anikulapo-Kuti somehow passed us by. How on earth did that happen?
But we shall wear our ignorance on our sleeves. Not with pride but without shame. A quick flick through Wikipedia unearthed some key facts: he was born leaving little room left for a silver spoon in his mouth with the moniker Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti. In 1978 he married 27 women in a single ceremony and he and his band once took up residence at the Crossroads Hotel. Oh, if only it had been a Motel. What would Amy Turtle have made of it all?
Fela! has been imported to the National Theatre via The Broadway but it isn’t really a Broadway musical as one might know it, more ofa concert. We meet Kuti in his apparently legendary Lagos nightclub The Shrine and if you’re looking to this show to discover more about him, Wikipedia or the extensive programme notes will tell you more than you’ll find here (or at least what you’ll find in Act 1).
The book isn’t so much a book as a leaflet. There is no context – just a one-dimensional hagiography – so it’s very difficult to make sense or care. Act 2 may well have presented a rounder picture of Kuti’s reportedly sexist attitudes and homophobia but we doubt it (and to be fair, pretty much everyone in the 1970s was sexist and homophobic and in Britain also racist).
But most frustrating was its fela-ure to fill in the background: why were the IMF and the WTO listed alongside alongside Chinese Petroleum and Halliburton as “international thieves”? Either it’s assumed that we already know or that it doesn’t matter. It would have been interesting to learn. But it’s so sketchy that one has to conclude that Carlos Moore’s lawsuit asserting that the production is based on material stolen from his biography of Fela Kuti reflects rather badly on his book.
The limited dialogue is often as unintelligible as the lyrics which have to be projected as part of the multi-media experience, an admission on the part of the production that there are blanks even bigger than the Whingers’ minds to be filled in.
And since this comes via New York it may have imported its “whooping” audience too, but worse, pre-empts the requisite Broadway standing ovation very early in the show. Sahr Ngaujah‘s (who won’t be doing all the performances once the show is out of previews) charismatic Kuti encourages the audience to stand and move their bleedin’ arses around the faces of the clock in a number called “The Clock”. This misguided attempt at audience participation occurs indecently near the beginning but it was one of the highlights for the Whingers whose buttocks were clinging to the upholstery for dear life: never have we seen so many people standing up looking so distinctly uncomfortable and er, well, British, half-heartedly attempting to wiggle their quite rigid booties. If you’ve ever followed Mr Motivator‘s entreaties in the privacy of your own drawing room you may feel horribly exposed. Out of respect for the people in the rows behind, the Whingers kept their clocks to themselves.
Director Bill T. Jones choreography is sometimes very impressive and always energetic, but it’s mostly bottom-wiggling and jerky neck movements so let’s hope they’ve got a half-decent chiropractor on call backstage.
The Whinger’s derrières were shifting for all the wrong reasons. They felt they had got the gist after about 10 minutes. Phil, desperate to avoid ennui, drifted back to the Seventies and fond memories of Ipi Tombi.
On the plus side, it’s very colourful (designer Marina Draghici) and Ngaujah wears a very nice shirt which even by Andrew’s standards could be termed “busy” (Christine Hamilton was wearing something similar in red and black at the following evening’s opening night of An Ideal Husband at the Vaudeville). The band is impressive.
There was a tantalisingly brief clip of Sinatra singing. Now that’s what we call music.
And we notice that the National has abandoned all pretence at colour-blind casting.