Theatre; Marabi the Musical; Theatre Royal, Stratford East

'Lush harmonies, hangdog humour and spirited performances are never allowed to dispel the tensions'
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The Independent Culture
Marabi fuses southern Africa's musical idioms with urban Afro- American jazz. Created in the squatter camps and slum yards of 1920s South Africa, the music was frowned on by whites and upwardly mobile blacks because of its associations with crime. But cultural critics have given it a more salubrious reading, identifying strains of political resistance. Marabi culture, with its shebeens, illegal gambling dens and sexually suggestive dances, reads like an evasion of the kind of self-discipline which reassures an oppressive regime. Marabi the Musical is, similarly, about indiscipline, about familial disconnections, and - as a tragic response toapartheid - a disposition among its victims for self-flagellative violence.

Straining hard for dignity in the slums of 1940s Doornfontein, an ageing strongman attempts to safeguard his daughter's virtue and preserve her for marriage to a suitable boy. Owen Sejake is excellent as the father, Mabongo, a lapsed traditionalist who, ridden with guilt about marrying without his ancestors' blessings, attempts to re-establish tribal connections through his daughter.

But 14-year-old Martha (winsomely played by Nkhensani Manganyi) is in love with Ginger George, a self-obsessed Marabi singer of great charm and even greater sexual irresponsibility. When Ginger impregnates Martha, scuppering Mabongo's dreams of atonement, he throws her out. As the music's subversive influence spreads, those who hanker for order and safe predictability become tragicomic figures.

What's great about this musical adaptation of Modikwe Dikobe's groundbreaking novel is that lush harmonies, hangdog humour and spirited performances from the whole cast are never allowed to dispel the directionlessness and tensions of the dispossessed, and the great fear of the (white) world outside the slum yard.

The slum-dwellers are in a kind of cultural no-man's-land. Serving the white world means loss of traditional certainties, while the colour of their skin precludes reassuring engagement with whites.

Designer Sarah Roberts's evocative depiction of a slum yard can bring a lump to your throat, and the beautiful yet mournful tunes will make you want to dance. But ever so often they might just coax a tear or two.

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