Umoja, Shaftesbury Theatre, London

Dancing like men possessed
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The Independent Culture

This show has a large cast (33 singers, dancers and musicians) and certainly feels like it. Or rather, the wonder is that there aren't more of them, so quickly do they switch roles, make lightning costume changes, transfer from a breath-sapping gumboot dance to a spruce gospel chorus.

The gospel singing starts fairly sedately (the term is relative): orderly lines dressed in pristine white gowns which spread out into the centre aisle and the balconies, and swell the air with a cappella counterpoint. But even that evolves into transports of massed sound and movement. And suddenly I became a gospel fan, the form's exciting potential flooding my mind.

Just arrived from Johannesburg and Sandton, where it has been electrifying audiences since last year, Umoja stands for "The Spirit of Togetherness", which is its subtitle. This has a special political significance, given that Umoja is a South African show through and through. It is a journey through the history of black South Africa via its music, created by two women, the choreographer Todd Twala and designer Thembi Nyandeni, who both performed in the original cast of the hit musical Ipi Ntombi. They set up a performing arts school for young people from disadvantaged communities, and the small but versatile troupe which emerged in the late 1990s led to the present show, which has been directed and scripted by Ian von Memerty.

Taut direction is one of the pleasures of Umoja, as is the script, which manages to slot humour into all the history. You won't understand some of the lyrics (unless you're South African), but you will appreciate the narration of Hope Ndaba. A self-taught musician, he is grizzled enough to remember vividly what he describes: the oppression and fear, especially when apartheid was at its worst, and the social and musical changes.

And so he guides us from the tribal dances and songs of the villages to the exuberant jazz of the townships, where men with work permits migrated to find employment. They searched for release among the pimps and gangsters of "shebeens", or illegal drinking places. They worked in the gold mines, where another form of dancing was born, forged out of nothing, because they had nothing – only gumboots, dustbins, tin cans and pieces of wood.

From urban and mining music we move on to gospel, then on to the street-culture of today, where Umoja's dancers launch into fabulous body-popping, stepping numbers. Finally, we come back full circle to the traditional drumming, antelope-skin shields and dances, because South Africa is about unity in diversity.

It is a final ultra-high in an evening of highs, building a wall of drumming and syncopated colour (the costumes are beautiful). What is particularly attractive is the seemingly spontaneous warmth of the performers, a charm free of the brittle, manufactured enthusiasm of our own music-theatre hoofers. Yet these South Africans also have a versatility of the most strictly disciplined, professionally polished kind. They dance like demons, sing like angels and drum like magicians possessed.

To 16 Feb 2002 (020-7379 5399)

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