Theatre: FELA!



Arriving early at the National Theatre to catch a preview of FELA! on Wednesday evening was a good idea. The band was already playing and they sounded so cool. It was such a contrast to the hillbilly rock-a-billy music playing in the theatre foyer, which was being enjoyed by a group of pensioners and a smattering of eccentric dancers who looked as if they were on day release. Who knew that one building could cater to so many tastes? The Olivier Theatre just felt like the place to be. That is no mean feat given the size of the place. Art, graffiti, lights are everywhere and there was the band with its cool beats and sounds...

When FELA! finally gets started, it tells the story of Nigerian musician and political activist Fela Kuti's last night at his Shrine club in the late seventies. Part concert, part dance, part rambling dialogue, and part musical, what is brilliant about this show is its ability to give context to the man and his music. The show weaves in the events that shaped his life and creativity but it is about recreating the experience of seeing the man and experiencing the thrill of his music that is most important. You mostly don't get a biography here, but if you're not familiar with the Afrobeat music he created, by the end of the evening you will be.  
When you're not outraged by the injustice, or perplexed by his tight trousers or blue speedos, you will be grooving along.

Sahr Ngaujah, who originated the role on Broadway (and in its earlier incarnations) keeps the show together playing Fela, and understandably shares the role over the season given the demands on the man as the singer, performer, musician and holding everything together. His supporting ladies also provide some amazing vocals.

The first act includes some audience participation that involves "shaking your clock". This is only best attempted if you are part of a large group of people and if you had visited the bar prior to the show. While I was uncertain about a number of elements of the first act, on reflection it was merely foreplay for some incredibly amazing sequences that take place in the second. By the second act the production and performances build at such intensity, that it is at times sensory overload.

Afrobeat surely can no longer be just pigeon-holed as "world music", since it has influenced most major recording artists these days, and so it is about time it had a wider audience. This show is a breathtaking new entry into musical theatre and a long overdue injection of life into the genre. Perhaps even proof that musicals could now even be cool and sexy again...

The show runs through to the new year and will also be part of the National Theatre Live programme on 13 January 2011. Don't miss the experience.

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