£12 – 28
2 hours 35 mins
Video clip: FELA!
The first word that left my mouth as I walked into the Dress Circle to the extravaganza that is Fela! was WOW. A live band on stage is playing brassy afrobeats (a band so large that I couldn’t even count all the members…8?…12?) The stage is buzzing with life and rasta colours. Brechtian style screens display political newspaper headings and 70’s style rolling video clips of merging shapes and shades. Life and energy encapsulates the stage. WOW.
When the dynamic Sahr Ngaujah (playing Fela Kuti) starts the performance with some audience participation I look around nervously. As a storyteller myself I love participation in shows but the audience demographic surrounding me was certainly the least diverse I have ever seen in a theatre. My concerns however didn’t seem to affect anyone else and I was astounded to see 10 minutes later middle aged white women thrusting their pelvis’ to some afrobeats with glee. It was then that I knew this production was something special.
We then proceeded to go on the wild ride that was the life of Fela Kuti. We visited countries around the world (including the US where he was inspired by the Black Power Movement) and listened to the beats that made the music of Fela. Unfortunately there was no program for this performance so I don’t know the name of the VJ who I would like to credit because the projections throughout the show made the performance for me. They brought these cities alive and then we finally found ourselves back in Lagos and even onto a mysterious spirit land where Fela becomes reinstated with his Nigerian culture.
Sahr Ngaujah is a captivating storyteller and musician and the audience loves him. I did however feel at times that there was a large cast and that they could have been used in the story more rather than just dancers (though they are exceptional movers and shakers) and the representation of his 27 wives. One of the most powerful parts of the production was when the women did become characters who had been beaten, raped and killed by the oppressive regime and although they did not speak they suddenly transformed into individuals which was a powerful moment. One strong female character in the production is Funmilayo, Fela’s activist mother- played by Melanie Marshall. Her spine tingling voice is outstanding.
Like many films which are true stories this production does jumble up and significantly edit large details out of Fela Kuti’s life. At times Fela’s path seems more like the hedonistic musical journey of a rock star rather than a strong political leader who wanted to become a president. Saying that- this touring show, produced in association with the National Theatre and supported by Plymouth’s Theatre Royal is sure to lift up spirits of audiences in a time when the arts are not high on the political agenda. We are cutting already tight theatre budgets when shows like Fela! display how an audience can embrace other cultures, learn about how colonisation affected countries and how to shake their British bums!