First Night: Ikrismas Kherol, The Young Vic, London

Humbug proves no match for the music of the townships
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The Independent Culture

"Singing is for fools," declares the black female Scrooge-figure in Ikrismas Kherol, the South African township adaptation of A Christmas Carol that Isango/Portobello are presenting in a co-production with the Young Vic alongside their Impempe Yomlingo, a version of The Magic Flute that gives Mozart's opera enchantingly fresh South African sonorities.

The evidence of these two shows definitively belies Scrooge's dictum. It's balm to the spirit to hear the heart, humour and soul that pour forth from choral singing of this extraordinary dynamic and prismatic range.

The overture to The Magic Flute is given a charming marimba make-over and performed with infectious wit and visible joy. The sound of the protective flute itself is cheekily evoked by a trumpet whose voice slurs into the odd naughty jazzy inflection. The tinkling of a music box is summoned up by tapping water-filled glass bottles amid a glitter-ball swirl of light.

Mark Dornford-May's vibrant, elating production honours both the ritualistic solemnity of this story of Masonic initiation and progress towards wisdom (here reattired in vivid African dress) and the warm foolery of its fairytale elements.

Looking at the wonder on the faces of some of the tiny children who attended press night, I was reminded of the Bergman film version, and the delight his camera captures in the expressions of a young audience watching the theatrical performance at Drottningholm. But this version where the Mozart sound can segue into something funkier and marimba-rhythm-based has a wholly distinct identity.

There are some fabulous voices to luxuriate in. A little wayward in pitch at the start, Simphiwe Mayeki achieves a heart-stopping security in the burnished stoicism of "In diesen heiligen Hallen" (delivered in English translation).

Pauline Malefane pulls off a stupendous double. She's an electrifying Medusa-haired Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute and an initially alarming and then deeply moving Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

Dickens's story, which demonstrates the need to open up to the sufferings of others, however defensively hard-hearted we have become, is here shifted to the South Africa of Aids and asset-stripped communities. The footage that shows us Scrooge's earlier selves and the developments (mother's death, sister's recourse to prostitution to provide for her) is eloquently shot and piercingly sad.

The production begins high up in the Young Vic's roof as miners descend to stage level, singing their souls out. They include the father of a female Tiny Tim (lovely Poseletso Sejosingoe) who is trying to win financial support for her ailing school. With beautiful, dignified and humanely amusing performances for the Spirits of Christmas Past and Present, Scrooge's journey towards enlightened generosity is here lent a new lease of urgent life.

"Wrong effect!" laughs the Spirit of Christmas Present when she scatters wholly un-South African snow over the scene. In every other respect, though, these shows another Yuletide triumph for the Young are bang on song as ideal seasonal fare.

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