Gumboots, Barbican Theatre, London

Stomping show from men too sexy for their boots
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The Independent Culture

Gumboots is all about family-friendly swagger. Eleven bare-chested men, dressed in rubber wellington boots, jeans and bright bandanas, stamp through their routines, beaming out at a whooping audience.

Gumboots is all about family-friendly swagger. Eleven bare-chested men, dressed in rubber wellington boots, jeans and bright bandanas, stamp through their routines, beaming out at a whooping audience.

Gumboot dancing started in the goldmines of apartheid South Africa. Black miners were forced to work in flooded mines, shackled in place and forbidden to speak. To communicate, they developed a rhythmic language, a Morse code of stamped feet and shaken chains. Above ground, it became a popular folk dance.

Gumboots gives that dance the Tap Dogs treatment: an industrial set (by Tap Dogs' Nigel Triffitt), bare-chested men, hearty amounts of noise. Director Zenzi Mbuli throws in references to the suffering of the mine workers, but the show is almost entirely upbeat. The tragic history wins the show some automatic goodwill, but it skates lightly over any horrors. We hear that miners were separated from their families, but brief laments are followed by extended party songs.

In fact, the energy and good humour come mostly from the singing. The nine dancers sing throughout, unaccompanied or with guitar and rhythm section. Voices blend in a lovely rich sound, with warm harmonies and plenty of texture. The traditional numbers are best, but even the pop songs show off this singing.

The dancing has a lot less variety: it's almost all hard stomps, with hands clapped or slapped on the sides of the rubber boots. Rattling ankle chains, hung with bottle tops, add a percussive jingle. The dancers stamp hard and fast, but without much change in rhythm. The impact is down to those bare chests, and that much noise.

The difference is that, while the songs are done straight, the dancing is dressed up with extra routines. It's the same with spoken rhythm games. In one number, they build from chanted sounds to a full-blown gumboot dance. Mbuli doesn't quite trust the rhythms: the chants are full of comedy falsetto squeaks, faces pulled at the audience.

There's a competition dance, but it's really about the competitive strut of each soloist, not his steps. In I'm Too Sexy For My Boots each dancer comes forward for a solo spot. The biggest cheer, and the sharpest dancing, was for the Michael Jackson moon walk.

The others swing their hips, encouraging wolf-whistles, but any sexy strutting is softened with a comedy smirk.

Between numbers, the dancers rush about the stage in prepared routines. They eye up a woman in the audience to introduce one song, bring on drinking bowls for another.

There's not much spontaneity in the linking patter, but the show whisks along at a cheerful pace. The drunk scene may be no funnier than drunk scenes usually are, but it only takes a minute; we're rushed straight on to some more singing.

Gumboots is a brisk, bouncy show. Its makers know what they're doing.



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