For those who like their reviews concise; let me just say that The Scottsboro Boys is a stunning piece of theatre.
However, this latest musical collaboration by the veteran duo Kander and Ebb deserves a bit more background. The story deals with one of the most infamous episodes of American legal history. Nine African-American teenagers were arrested after being falsely accused of raping two white women on a train to Memphis in 1931. An all-white jury found them guilty despite the evidence weighing heavily to the contrary. These teenagers, who came to be known as The Scottsboro Boys, seemed to be destined for the electric chair. It’s only when they secure the aid of a lawyer, one Samuel Leibowitz, that they receive a retrial. What follows is a tragically farcical string of further trials that spans the years. It piqued the conscience of the American. John Kander stated in a recent interview that he grew up hearing the story reported daily in the newspapers and discussed in the streets before gradually fading from the public interest.
Fortunately, the musical adaptation is not a dreary courtroom drama. For the most part, it’s upbeat and exciting despite the bleak and sombre source material. While not exactly the most obvious story to base a Broadway musical on, Kander and Ebb have, by some magic, managed to produce a genuinely engaging, interesting and funny performance on this story. Having worked on some of Broadway’s most well-loved musicals such as Cabaret and Chicago, Kander and Ebb are not averse to a challenge. Sadly, this was their last collaboration as Fred Ebb died in 2004.
The key to the success of The Scottsboro Boys is how the story has been retold as a minstrel show. While minstrel shows of the time would usually involve white men sporting blackface makeup, The Scottsboro Boys uses a cast of all-black actors (with one notable exception, the Interlocutor played by Julian Glover). The black actors take on the roles of white characters and exaggerate everything that can be exaggerated. From John Wayne-esque walks (I think I may have seen it before in the Monty Python Ministry of Silly Walks sketch) to the most stereotypical nasal Yankee accent I’ve ever heard, what initially seems tremendously childish is in fact clever parody. The way the stereotypical mannerisms of different races and cultures are acted out has powerful (and often hilarious) results. With just one female actor, black men are also required to play the other female roles; Dex Lee and James T Lane put on truly brilliant performances as Victoria Price and Ruby Bates respectively. Every movement is thought out and executed with exaggerated precision. Dawn Hope is the soul woman in the cast. While she has few lines, she has plenty of stage time and Hope’s quiet presence offsets the action with reminders that the world outside continues to exist.
The minstrel show style is controversial and has been the subject of criticism. However, Kander and Ebb have struck a delicate balance by turning the demeaning minstrel show into a platform to show the horror that it truly was. The performance does not make light of controversy, far from it. Nor have they swept it under the carpet. It is what it is.
The Scottsboro Boys had the curious effect of having me laughing one moment before sending me into a spate of seriousness the next. In this respect, it wasn’t all that dissimilar to the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth where the horrors of the World War I trenches were realised in a compelling, quite unexpected climax to what was otherwise a rather silly comedy.
Song highlights include the beautiful Go Back Home, which I can see becoming part of the standard musical theatre repertoire, Commencing in Chattanooga, featuring some great harmonies, and Electric Chair, amongst the most haunting pieces of musical theatre I have ever seen. These are performed by a competent and talented cast with several members from the original Broadway cast represented including Brandon Victor Dixon as the main protagonist Haywood Patterson.
My only real criticism is that it is too short. There were several moments which I felt would be appropriate for an interval. At 1 hour and 45 minutes (with no interval), it is on the shorter side for a West End production and there is a lot of story to squeeze in (indeed, a story that spans many, many years). There were characters that I felt I hadn’t learned enough about and didn’t get the stage time they deserved. That said, it finished well and with a large proportion of the audience giving it a standing ovation.
Above all, this is amongst the most original pieces of theatre that I have seen. It tackles sensitive and difficult issues in a clever way and it gets you thinking about them.
Review by Samuel Lickiss
2 Charing Cross Road
London, WC2H 0HH
The Scottsboro Boys
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for ages 12+
Booking From: 4th October 2014
Booking Until: 21st February 2015
Important Information: There is no interval.
Wednesday 22nd October 2014