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Theatre: The Scottsboro Boys

CIARAN BERMINGHAM recommends a great anti-racist musical

The Scottsboro Boys

Young Vic Theatre,London SE1

5 Stars

When nine black youths, the youngest 13 years of age, were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in the US Deep South of the 1930s, they were never going to receive a fair trail.

An all-white jury hastily sentenced them to death and, despite numerous retrials, a Communist Party-headed protest movement and the tireless campaigning of New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz, justice was never served.

This true story of bigotry and virulent racism might not seem like the most obvious basis for the all-singing, all-dancing musical which has transferred to London's Young Vic after huge Broadway success.

But Kander and Ebb, the duo behind Cabaret and Chicago, have proven once again that the most serious topics can make for the most powerful, affecting theatre.

The Scottsboro Boys is as dazzling as it is disturbing. There are moments, such as the shocking Electric Chair show tune, where you catch yourself laughing and frowning at the same time.

Behind the apparently glitzy facade, the production makes a deeply sincere political point, intended to unsettle those who see theatre as just frothy entertainment.

Clearly inspired by plays such as Upton Sinclair's Singing Jailbirds, this is in a tradition of agitprop where mainstream musical forms are taken and subverted. So the predominantly black cast adopt white roles in order to send up the ridiculous stereotypes of the "minstrel show."

The fantastic Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon adopt the roles of an overblown vaudeville double act Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, while Christian Dante White's drag burlesque of accuser Victoria Price shows how she was a naive actor in a much bigger performance.

Combined with Susan Stroman's stunningly realised choreography, the result starkly draws the attention to the theatricality of the show trials, conducted while KKK lynch mobs gathered outside the young men's prison cell.

Although some focus is placed on the plight of Haywood Patterson (Kyle Scatliffe), the dehumanisation of these forgotten names into numbers highlights the artifice of a "justice" system in a show which is historical in the truest sense.

This astounding production does not patronise the audience with exhaustive context that might allow inequality and prejudice to be conveniently pigeonholed as "the past."

When we discover that the Scottsboro Boys were only officially pardoned by the Alabama state earlier this year, posthumously at that, the urge is not only to go away and learn more about this story but also to reflect on how a struggle subsequently taken up by Rosa Parks remains unfulfilled.

The point that genuine freedom is about more than not being wrongfully incarcerated is made particularly poignantly when the characters, rejecting the prison of their assigned roles, refuse to perform for Julian Glover's Colonel Sandersesque "Interlocutor."

Incandescent performances all round do justice to this astonishing musical masterpiece.

Runs until December 21. Box office: (020) 7922-2922

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