I have mixed feelings about Fela!, the new musical that is currently showing at the National Theatre, on the Olivier stage. This vibrant show is all passion and politics and tells the life of Fela Kuti, Nigerian musician, human rights activist and political maverick.
The show is unlike anything I’ve ever seen at the National before. It is an explosion of colour and noise, the whole theatre is adorned with pictures, lights and projections. As the audience walk in, the exuberant band is already jamming away on stage, it is like walking into another country, and has a carnival-like atmosphere. The high level of energy and spirit continue right through the three hour show, which eventually became quite exhausting to watch. I would like to have seen a little more variation of tone; it would have perhaps made the intensity a little more manageable.
The action takes place at the Shrine, in Lagos, 1978 where Fela is giving his final concert. This musical feast tries to cram in the entire span of this revolutionary’s fascinating life. His upbringing in London, and then his return to Nigeria where he strives to make a difference with his music. We see the impact of the dreadful death of his mother, which haunts him throughout the story and are also made aware of his infamous womanising. I felt the narrative to be a little muddled and the incessant dancing (as brilliant as it is) slightly takes over the story. The show is long, and by the two hour mark I started to get restless and a little bored.
The star of the show is Sahr Ngaujah who gives the performance of his life as Fela. Nagaujah comes straight from playing the role in the original Broadway production. He really is as extraordinary as the legend himself, singing and dancing across the stage, playing the trumpet and sax phenomenally and even joking with the audience with an alarming ease and charisma. During the performance he gets the audience up on to their feet to sing, dance and join in with the Clock pelvic thrusts – it was hilarious to see the National crowd attempting this move! Nagaujah is supported on stage by Melanie Marshall as his sweet voiced mother, and Paulette Ivory as the American girl who wins his heart. The rest of the company is equally energetic, and it is exciting to see the players having such a good time, even if that is running amongst the audience screaming at the top of their voices. The band is spectacular, how they played continuously for such a length of time is a marvel to me.
Fela! continues at The Olivier Theatre until 23 January 2011, book tickets here.