Tuesday 10 January 2023

Theatre review: Mandela

I may not have started the year with a rescheduled show but that doesn't mean theatre's out of the woods yet - I was due to see Greg Dean Borowsky, Shaun Borowsky (music and lyrics) and Laiona Michelle's (book) new musical Mandela a month ago but the performance was cancelled due to cast illness as, it was recently announced, have half the performances of a show that seems to have been particularly unlucky. There were still covers on tonight, including in the title role, so it's not quite the full Nelson, but the show did go ahead... and what an odd show it is. Covering the bare bones of roughly three decades of Nelson Mandela's (understudy Akmed Junior Khemalai) life, it shows him as one of many in the crowd of black South Africans whose peaceful protest is broken up with violence.

After this massacre he becomes a more prominent figurehead for change, and eventually an international symbol against Apartheid when he's imprisoned for life on Robben Island, finally being freed 27 years later. Meanwhile his wife Winnie (Danielle Fiamanya) takes up the revolutionary torch on the outside.

Mandela's story is of course very famous, but if anyone did happen to come to this show not knowing anything about him, I'm not sure they'd be much the wiser than the cursory summary above after watching it. You'd expect your fair share of rousing songs of protest and defiance, but this is almost the only thing the Borowskys' music provides. The show opens brilliantly with one of these anthemic numbers, then after a very speedy run through the Sharpeville massacre the characters respond with... another anthemic number. Michelle's book seems to be little more than an exercise in listing the next bad thing the government (Earl Carpenter's nameless Prime Minister representing all the leaders during those decades) did to black South Africans, so that we can have another stirring anthem of defiance. I can see why Mandela has divided audiences - "Do You Hear The People Sing?" is the best bit of Les Misérables, but that show probably wouldn't still be running if it was just that song for three hours.

And that's not the only time Les Mis comes to mind, as do Chess and Blood Brothers - you'd expect a musical about Nelson Mandela to be heavily influenced by African music and the opening number is, but in total there's only about two songs per act that, if you heard them out of context, you might guess had an African context (Gregory Maqoma's choreography is more consistent in bringing a sense of place.) Instead the songwriters heavily channel other musical theatre, particularly the West End hits of the 1980s, although the second act takes us more into the 21st century with a lot more Pasek & Paul influence. The songs are generally strong in their own right, but many are very derivative to the point of it being distracting (one big key change was incredibly familiar but I couldn't quite place it - could it have been Martin Guerre of all things?) and when the Borowskys do occasionally try for something a bit more low-key and emotional they're not as effective.

Schele Williams' production boasts a strong cast who bring great energy to the performances, but there's only so long that the same relentless tone can hold the interest, and it does little to deal with the lack of musical variety: If two thirds of the songs end with a character facing the audience and punching the air, it should be a clue that there's not a lot of nuance to the show overall. And ultimately it does feel like there's a lot missing. We get to see a bit of Mandela's gently persuasive personality in the friendship he gradually builds with the prison warden (Stewart Clarke - as with the Prime Ministers, Mandela's time at various prisons is simplified to just Robben Island) but his famous sense of humour is something we have to take other people's word for. Mandela is keen to share credit with the others who fought to end Apartheid but the show is less so - we see a bit of how his brother-in-law Oliver Tambo's (Ntsikelelo Nicholas Vani) campaigning abroad helped bring about the crucial international sanctions, but the book never even mentions the names of the two men imprisoned alongside Mandela.

And I can see why the relationship with Winnie is a strong hook to hold a story on but it's still odd to focus so heavily on it without acknowledging that it ended in divorce. There's one song that deals with the fact that her methods were a lot more extreme and they clashed over it, but it's quickly moved on from, and the show ends with their happy reunion - no mention of the fact that it soon turned out their marriage didn't work if they had to spend more than half an hour every six months in the same room together. So, a decent production of a show that seems to have studied a lot about the music of successful musicals, but learnt little about their structure: I can understand the appeal of trying to write a musical without the boring bits, but Mandela ends up proving why the boring bits are usually there in the first place.

Mandela by Greg Dean Borowsky, Shaun Borowsky and Laiona Michelle is booking until the 4th of February at the Young Vic.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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