Theatre review: The Scottsboro Boys

A brilliant mismatch of form and content

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The Independent Culture

Kander and Ebb used cabaret to counterpoint the rise of Nazism and, in Chicago, they co-opted vaudeville to satirise the corrupting power of publicity. In this brilliantly barbed new musical – completed after Ebb's death in 2004 – the pair subvert the conventions of the minstrel show to highlight the racist prejudice underlying one the most infamous miscarriages of justice in US legal history.

The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers pulled off a train and falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama in 1931. Sentenced to the electric chair, they were reprieved at the eleventh hour only to be subjected to a succession of unsatisfactory appeals and re-trials that dragged on for years. Their case became a cause celebre, championed by the Communist Party and Samuel Leibowitz, a New York Jewish attorney.

Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, this re-staging of the 2010 Broadway production deploys the ironic minstrel-show conceit with a stinging dynamism. Here, instead of whites blacking up offensively, the black performers get to create gleeful caricatures of a gallery of bigoted whites. The classic cross-talking couple of Mr Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon) double as a bandy-legged racist sheriff, a drunk lawyer and in one creepy number, a Southern Attorney General who deplores the influence of  "Jew money".

At first, the contrast between the manic ingratiating verve of their tambourine-bashing routines and the horrifying reality of their situation emphasises the powerlessness of the boys. A nightmare about the electric chair is presented as a virtuosic tap sequence. But gradually, in their desperation, the youths start to sabotage the stereotyping formats and to disobey the lone white figure of the MC (Julian Glover in an Uncle Sam top hat). "How those sights and sounds/Come back to me/Like my daddy hanging from the tree," they sweetly harmonise in a demure litany of the delights of the South.

Reference is made to dismaying fact that when the four youngest were released in 1937, they were put into a vaudeville act in Harlem. This detail seems to have inspired the creators of this musical which climaxes in a blistering top-hat-and-tails number with added black-face make-up where the notoriety of the men is guyed as showbiz adulation ("Since they heard we're such a wow/MGM is calling now") and contrasted with their deeply bleak future fate. In a phenomenal cast, Kyle Scatliffe is extraordinarily charismatic as Haywood Patterson, the most defiant of the bunch. Not since Sondheim's Assassins has an apparent mismatch between form and content been exploited with such savage pertinence.

To 21 December; 0207 922 2922