Thursday, 2 February 2012

Umoja - Review

The show opens with a salvo of drum patterns, huge men beat ferociously as if the decades of oppression they endured were now bundled into the hollow depths of this instrument they played.

This is "Umoja" we're told by our narrator Gregory Mkhabla, a man who I can only liken to a sub Saharan Morgan Freeman with his deeply melancholy voice, he goes on to explain; " it is a word from Swahili meaning togetherness", and there was a familial togetherness on stage as we had glimpses of a past Zulu nation, a nation that roared with sheer vigour and power. The men, spear in one hand and shield in the other leapt and tumbled, their chests pounded with intent and they grappled each other for respect and honour. The women, exposed to the world were vivid, their guise tempting and voices rejoiced in unison as they beautifully harmonised the spirit of togetherness through musical number and dance. Occasionally they will spill out into the auditorium in full glory, unapologetic, vibrant and intimidating as if to reclaim a land that once belonged to them; this was evident in the wildness in their eyes.

Many are aware of the story of Apartheid and political fraction in South Africa; Film, Art and Theatre have all played their part in contributing to this discourse. I remember none more fondly than Sarafina; a musical by Mbongeni Ngema depicting students involved in the Soweto Riots, in opposition to apartheid. Umoja, however doesn't fall into that category, in fact, it did everything it possibly could to sway away from the politics and harsh reality of living in South Africa, instead what we have is the optimist's approach, satirical reflection of mainstream South African culture and the decision to revel in wondrous discovery of Sheebebs underground clubs where, we're told, the likes of Miriam Makeba and the Soul Brothers careers were birthed.

Todd Twala's choreography although engaging at first became repetitive and all too predictable, the music seemed at its best in the first half when the richness of African voices flowed easily and with cadence to traditional music, the transition into contemporary Kwaito seemed unnatural and the Gospel explosion turned our spirited songstress into Sister Mary Clarence.

This didn't matter however, what we saw was a new nation celebrating its history, their spirit relentless and passion uninhibited. Their message was clear and poignant; it's the past and present that makes us great, the spirit of Umoja travels through time and on a night where sub zero temperature battered the streets of London, I was at least grateful to be transported to a warmer climate.

Booking until February 19, Box Office: 0844 412 4300

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