RICHARD WALTERS is impressed by this colourful piece of musical theatre with deep political undertones

ADC theatre Sophiatown south africa Theatre

ADC Theatre, Tue 28 October – Sat 1 November 2014 at 7.45pm, £12/£9

The cast of Sophiatown hit the stage with boundless energy from the word go last night.

The brightly coloured set and costumes took us straight into the world of 1950s Sophiatown, a freehold township in Johannesburg.

The singing was impeccable, from the opening number to the heart-rending closing song, and it was wonderfully refreshing to hear something other than a Broadway hit coming from the ADC stage.

Though the transitions in and out of songs were a tad clumsy, the audience couldn’t help but get excited whenever the chorus trundled back onstage, because we knew that we were in for another musical delight.

The first half of the show needed some refinement; as the plot takes a little while to get going, the actors seemed to have too much energy to know where to direct it, though the overall effect was in keeping with the chaos of the setting.

Special mention must go to Jess Matsebula who stole the show as sixteen-year-old Lulu, not only with her vivacious physicality and bright facial expression, but also with her incredible vocals.

It is quite a feat to fill the ADC theatre will a single un-miced voice, let alone when you are singing above a full chorus, but the audience left the theatre with the sound of Matsebula’s harrowing final number still ringing in their ears.

One of the most impressive features of the show was the entire cast’s command of accent and language, which remained consistent throughout.

They slipped in and out of the slang language Tsotsitaal, a combination of Afrikaans, English and various African languages. Sophie Grant as the Jewish Ruth Golden was also excellent in showing an outsider’s view of the township community.

The set was simple but effective, and credit must go to Sam Payne for stunning lighting design. Intimate moments were marked out beautifully and the lighting seemed to encapsulate every different emotion that ran through the house, from dark brooding scenes to beautiful silhouettes in coloured backlighting.

Colour was essential in capturing the atmosphere of the vibrant and eclectic township.

Sophiatown was an example of political theatre as it should be, it carried a strong message about the sense of belonging and ended in a moment’s silence for the late Nelson Mandella.

Upon entering the theatre, the audience were given identity cards marking each of us out as black, white, coloured or Indian and, during the interval, we were told that we had to move into different rows according to our race (whites at the front, blacks at the back), as this would become relevant in the second half.

Disgruntled audience members picked up all their belongings, those ‘blacks’ who had bagged front row seats having to shift all the way to the back of the theatre. Confusingly, at no point was this referenced in the second half of the show.

It was only when I woke up this morning that I realised the true significance of the action: the arbitrary displacement of people based on race is inconvenient at best but devastating at worst.

It was a lesson worth pointing out and a show worth going to see.