Review – Fela!, National Theatre

Friday 12 November 2010

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”?

Shirley: Pass.

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.


Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary

39 Responses to “Review – Fela!, National Theatre”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Yes, why *hadn’t* you heard of Fela Kuti? I first bought one of his albums nearly 30 years ago, and now have 40 or so of them. Somehow I doubt that this show will accurately reproduce his musical approach, though: most of those albums consisted of two vinyl-side-long numbers, or sometimes one that was so long it had to be split to fit on an LP. Now I suppose I’d better re-read that Moore biography for the first time in 20-odd years before seeing the show…

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    I noticed you guys had disappeared when I came back! At any rate _I_ liked the show and thought it was a real breath of fresh air after some of the tripe I’ve seen in the Olivier (like that horrid Nation last year). People were really going for a standing O after, too – shocking to see in an English audience! But I can see that if the music wasn’t doing it for you, this might have been a painful evening.

  3. A Clown Says:

    The standing ovation comes as a result of the torturously long curtain call which really milks it beyond what is called for. I was standing, but to put my coat on…
    I didn’t dislike it as much as you guys but I kind of wish I had left at the interval too, given how dull and repetitious I found the second half. Just because it is different for the Olivier doesn’t necessarily make it good…

  4. @ Ian. I can’t speak for Phil but I thin in the Seventies I pretty much jumped straight from the Bay City Rollers to Blondie pop-wise. This was Worcestershire.

    @ webcowgirl. Good for you.

    @ A Clown I read your review before writing ours and was impressed with your thoughtful, considered approach. Not least because it relieved us from taking one. Seriously though, I thought it was interesting.

    Finally, am surprised that no-one has accused us of being racist yet but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

    • A Clown Says:

      Thoughtful and considered? Not sure how deserved that is, but how very kind.

      I’ve had two emails accusing me of racialistic comments but I suspect they were Kerry Ellis fans in disguise.

  5. Phil (a west end whinger) Says:

    @ Ian. Oh goodness, we may have to go again, just to get a glimpse of your clock.

  6. Anja Says:

    OMG I could not agree more with every single word of your review!!!

  7. Christopher Travers Says:

    Racist! (Kidding.) Actually, we just sold our upcoming NT Live tickets (here in Los Angeles) knowing full well (from You Tube clips – NOT your review) that this was not for us. We have far more in common with The Whingers than we do with the admirable M. Kuti or should I write Anikulapo-Kuti? (Homophobia? No Thank You.) I do wish him well though. Well, he’s dead – but I certainly wish the production well and applaud the National’s efforts at inclusion. (Inclusiveness?) Go! Nicholas Hytner! Go!

  8. Owen Says:

    “Fela-ure!” … that made my day!

    I will also pass at NT Live’s broadcast of Fela! here in Vancouver … the little I saw of Fela! on the Tony Awards last June was enough for me.

  9. Ali67 Says:

    I agree completely! If this man had an interesting life.. The story of it hasn’t translated to the stage with this show. I couldn’t make out a word of the lyrics.. And I felt the show fell completely flat. If they wanted to get a new audience into the national I’d rather they brought The Color Purple over.. A good story well told.

    Why they can’t go back to staging fabulous revivals of classic shows I’ll never know. Or at least use their extensive resources to stage a new British musical.

  10. Baz Bamigboye Says:

    I’ve had a private word with Phil about the Whingers leaving Fela! at the interval.Can’t repeat what I said here though.It was in Yoruba and he didn’t understand a word of that either.Really,guys,it’s too bad you didn’t dig that Fela! at the National.I love classic musicals as well ,but I’ve always been open to other musical genres.It’s a shame you’re not open to culture that isn’t as safe as a classic revival.Sad. Otherwise,what’s the point?tg .Not very

  11. Baz Bamigboye Says:

    oh,dear ,I forgot to delete last few words of my comment.Now that is sad.

  12. webcowgirl Says:

    Ooh yeah, let’s do the Clock at the WEW’s annual do!

  13. Paul Says:

    Your reviews have become so dull and predictable now. When you can guarantee what a reviewer thinks it’s the death of them.

    For he record I enjoyed it (and I knew that you wouldn’t even as I clicked on this page).

    • James Says:

      Paul, I just saw it and thought the review on here was totally accurate. I didn’t want it to be but it was.

      • Paul Says:

        You stayed for barely half an hour so there is little weight behind any comment you are likely to make on the show.

        Three and four star reviews from the pros who are pretty much on the money in my opinion, not perfect but (for most) it will be a good, if undemanding, night out.

      • James Says:

        Paul, yes I agree the ‘pros’ are pretty much on the money…

        “Somehow Bill T Jones’s production proceeds in fits and starts without ever achieving a satisfying dramatic momentum. I longed for a stronger sense of narrative, and more depth beyond the showbiz razzle-dazzle”
        Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph

        “The story is flimsy and confused, and there’s a lack of narrative drive.”
        Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard

      • Paul Says:

        Narrative isn’t the only way to create an entertainment.

        Didn’t we got past that years ago?

  14. Paulinlondon Says:

    Guys, I didn’t think you would like shaking your clock… But I just loved this show. Besides, the night I went wasn’t all grey white people…

    Reminded me of going to Afroreggae at the Barbican a couple of years ago..

  15. Baz Bamigboye Says:

    Let’s face it Whinger boys ,you never learn’t how to tell the time otherwise you’d know how to do the Clock!

  16. Ali67 Says:

    I wonder if Baz will be paid to plug Fela every week like he probably has for going on about Shrek endlessly..?

    (I DO love your column though really… But find it hard to deal with your excitement about Amanda Holden. Did you see her in Millie?!!)

  17. addicted to theatre Says:

    Saw this on Friday and enjoyed it. Yes, it was too long (esp the second half) but the energy and enthusiasm of the cast was quite infectious while the staging was quite remarkable.

  18. jmc Says:

    My uncle & aunt, a social-climbing pair who’d relocated from the east end to Rainham, took my gran to Ipi Tombi, at which the poor old lady was so scandalised by the National Geographic-style bare breasts that it took a show about Flanegan & Allen to get her into the theatre again.

    I hope I won’t be so scandalised at Fela! tonight…

  19. Lord Andrew Lloyds Slipper Sniffer Says:

    Most Unhappy Fela.

  20. Michael Says:

    They got a ‘puff’ on BBC London last night – where it was called a ‘hot ticket.’
    How do they do that?

  21. James Says:

    Just back from press night. We think you did well to leave it as late as half time to go.

    We found it juvenile in script and repetitive in music.

    Left after 35mins.

  22. Perhaps if this show is considered as epic theatre as opposed to aristotelian theatre, the premise will make more sense. As an audience of modern theatre goers, we aren’t always very sophisticated are we? If we were, we’d understand the difference AND the depth. It has great potential – and needs to be realized fully.

  23. Diane Says:

    Hello Guys

    Love your website and do agree with some of your reviews but not this time. We thought Fela! was a refreshing change from the usual run of new musical theatre which seems to churn out constant copies of Lloyd Webber and Sondheim. I realise that this show might not be everyone’s cup of tea but was surprised to read you left at the interval. If you see yourself as serious reviewers you should at least stay for the whole show!! If readers of this website want to see a well performed and choreographed show with exuberant performances from a talented cast of singers, dancers and musicians then take a chance and go along. You may, like us, find yourself swept along and, dare I say, standing up for the ovation at the end!!

    • Christopher Travers Says:

      Diane – one of the great joys of “adulthood” (o that word) is learning that one does not have to endure a whole evening of theatre if one chooses not to do so – reviewer or not. Furthermore, professional reviewers leave the theatre before the end of a show far more often than the run-of-the-mill punter – it is a sign of professionalism.

      • Diane Says:

        Christopher – of course no one is compelled to “endure” a whole evening of theatre but if you are a reviewer it is a different story. Professional reviewers sometimes leave early in order to file their copy on time for the next day’s paper but web reviewers don’t nee dto do this. Would a literary critic review a book that he had only read a few chapters of? Probably not!!

  24. Don’t forget all the clicks, whirs and beep noises of old hard disks and floppy disks. It’s essential, otherwise a CSI computer doesn’t work!

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