The Scottsboro Boys***** (Young Vic)

Posted: November 13, 2013 in Theatre

photo-79If you want to see a great musical, go to Southwark. For the third time in just a few months, a major Broadway show makes its London debut in a relatively small venue in the borough, a few miles from the West End which might have been its home in past times. The subject is a notorious miscarriage of justice which took place in Alabama in the 1930s when nine young black men were sentenced to death on trumped up charges of raping two white women. Ostensibly, not much cheer here, but, in an extraordinary juxtaposition of theatrical styles, it is performed as a minstrel show and played for laughs for almost its entirety. The cast of 13 includes one white man (Julian Glover as several interlocutors) and one woman (Dawn Hope as a witness to events whose purpose remains unclear until the very last moment), but all other parts are played by black men, including white law officers and the boys’ female accusers. Possibly this blurring of reality helps to make a very unpleasant story more palatable, but the downside is that it sometimes becomes difficult for us to be moved by the tragedy that is unfolding when we are too busy laughing. Sadly, this is one of the last shows we will see from the Kander and Ebb team, as Fred Ebb died in 2004 whilst still working on this and other shows. The team’s work lacks the subtlety of Sondheim or the lovely melodies of Rodgers but their trademark of blending razzle-dazzle tunes with deeply cynical lyrics is unique and in plentiful evidence here, just as in their biggest triumphs “Cabaret” and “Chicago”. There is no better example of this than a rousing tap dance routine performed to a song about the glories of the electric chair. Overall, the songs here are a mixed bag, a few are ordinary, but several are beauties. The performances are uniformly superb. Kyle Scatliffe has the prominent role amongst the boys, but it seems unfair to single him or anyone else out. Susan Stroman directs with great imagination and her choreography is often stunning. This is not a flawless show, there are dull patches when the story goes nowhere and the contrasting elements are sometimes conflicting ones. However, it all comes together in a truly breathtaking chorus finale which leads to a brilliant coup de theatre in which the historical perspective of the events depicted is put into clear focus. Maybe the show is not perfect, but the glorious ending leaves us thinking that it is.

Performance date: 13 November 2013

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