Brazil! Brazil! Udderbelly, South Bank, London<br/>Tap Dogs, Novello, London

A night of keepy-uppy and caipirinhas, let down by some sloppy finishing
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The Independent Culture

Right on cue, the great British summer went into one of its glowering sulks for the opening of the South Bank's festival of sunny Brazilian culture, staged inside the belly of an inflatable purple cow. Yet even as the north wind decimated the sales of caipirinhas at the outdoor bar, nothing could lower the carnival heat of Brazil! Brazil!

With its thumping samba band, raucous singing, dizzying martial arts displays and acreage of glossy brown flesh, the show could easily have been a paean to simple partying. Yet in fact it pays homage to something even closer to the country's heart. Presided over by a blow-up image of Pele, this cheerful, sometimes chaotic 70 minutes of music and athletic movement is really about footie fever. "Every Brazilian," we're told, "knows that the ball has a soul".

On a stage cramped with the paraphernalia of a six-piece band, five male performers bounce footballs as they twitch their hips, rhythmically flex their backs like wobbleboards, or show off their keepy-uppy skills in time with the samba beat.

The star is the freakishly dextrous Arthur Mansilla, who seems to have cast some voodoo to persuade the ball to hover over various body-surfaces: his chin, his forehead, the end of his nose. At one point he tickles the ball repeatedly from above and below with his foot to keep it suspended in air. His working leg, moving at the speed of a shuttle on a loom, becomes a blur.

Not content with demonstrating their football prowess, these guys want to tell us about it, too, regardless of linguistic limitations. At first, I thought we were being addressed in Portuguese, but no. "It was a nine-a-tee-fift the firstime a young boy saw his father cry," we learn. That boy was Pele, who witnessed Brazil lose the World Cup to Uruguay when playing at home in Rio in 1950, and determined to put the smile back on the face of his pa. It's heart-on-sleeve stuff.

Capoeira, a martial art, might seem to belong to another realm, and samba dancing too, but no. "Ginga" is the key to success in all physical endeavour, we're told – a rocking, swinging motion, creating a fluid relationship between torso and limbs – at least when Brazilians do it.

The capoeira sections of the show generate most excitement, especially when the twisting, airborne bodies threaten to land in a front-row lap. The bendiest of the performers has reportedly broken records for backflips – 38 in 30 seconds – and we get a taste of them here, although they're so fast you soon lose count.

Apart from such spectacular highlights, Brazil! Brazil! is a little ragged. The spoken introductions are largely incomprehensible and some of the group routines are scrappy. For me, the singing of Margary Lord was too unrelenting in tone to enjoy for long, though her snake-hipped dancing in five-inch heels was a joy and a wonder. After its South Bank run, the show moves on to the Edinburgh Fringe, finishing long after the World Cup final. How its tone holds up once Brazil's fate is known will be interesting.

There's more noisy laddishness in Tap Dogs, the Aussie crowd pleaser in steel-capped work boots that first played the West End in 1995. Over the years Dein Perry, its creator and original star, has added new ideas and tweaked it into a more fluent 80 minutes. There is now a female element in the form of two rock-chick percussionists, displayed in metal cages above the action. And the cast is no longer all-Australian. You wouldn't know though, as the verbal element is limited to shouts of yo! and gggrrrgreeeaaahhh!, usually at the climax of a tap routine as a cue for wild applause.

In truth, the rhythms are mostly pretty basic, and the dancers' upper bodies barely employed at all, unless it's to assume a joke John Travolta pose, or a mocking wiggle of the bum – a gag that's overused to the point of tedium, though this audience seems to lap it up. The variety is somewhat strained for. We get noisy routines on metal scaffolding, noisy routines on the ceiling, noisy routines in puddles of water (the first few rows having been provided with plastic macs). There's a scene with the rhythm played out in squirty sparks from welding guns. And you can imagine how the boys love that.

'Brazil! Brazil!': Udderbelly, South Bank SE1 (0844 875 0073) to 18 Jul; Underbelly Cow Barn at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 5 to 30 Aug. 'Tap Dogs': (0844 482 5170) to 5 Sep.

Next Week:

The Royal Opera House goes walkabout with Pleasure's Progress, a Hogarthian tale of wigs, wags and bawds by Will Tuckett. Jenny Gilbert catches the opening night in Ipswich

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