Mandela – Young Vic Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Music and lyrics: Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky

Book: Laiona Michelle

Director: Schele Williams

Re-telling one of the most told stories in modern history, Mandela is a new musical based on the life of Nelson Mandela from the early 1960s until the completion of his long walk to freedom in 1990. It is a story of love and suffering, loss and triumph, seemingly the perfect basis for a dramatic musical.

The show’s biggest asset is its extraordinary central character and its biggest liability is over-familiarity with him. There is very little that Laiona Michelle’s book can add to what we already know: Mandela emerges as the leader of the movement resisting South Africa’s abhorrent Apartheid system and serves 27 years in prison, during which time he become the focus of worldwide opposition to the system. Williams tells it straight, chronologically, with little colouring or humour, giving the musical a solid if unexciting foundation.

A powerful performance by Michael Luwoye shows Mandela’s transformations from home loving family man to revolutionary leader, to oppressed prisoner and, finally, to statesman. However, saintly men do not necessarily provide a rich source for gripping drama and the show struggles to find interesting dimensions to Mandela’s character. Does the book dig beneath Mandela’s wholly virtuous image to look for some shades of darkness which contrast with the goodness? Of course not.

Potentially, the more interesting Mandela is Nelson’s wife Winnie, played superbly by Danielle Flamanya. Her journey from devoted stay-at-home mother to political leader standing in for her imprisoned husband is projected strongly, but, again, she becomes a character without flaws and the controversies which would later engulf her are skimmed over in just a couple of lines.

Director Scheme Williams’ production is slick and occasionally spectacular, making full use of the large open stage with a company of more than 20. Set designer Hannah Beachler keeps things simple, with a representation of the Mandela family home appearing at intervals, while costumes designed by Fay Fullerton bring vibrant colour to the stage, augmented by Jon Clark’s very effective lighting designs.

The show opens brilliantly with songs co-written by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky, drawing from traditional African rhythms and harmonies. Marvellous dance routines, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma further establishes the African setting. Similar sequences return at times throughout the show, but, at other times, the music seems more inspired by Les Misérables, suggesting that Mandela’s suffering is being compared with that of the fictional Jean Valjean. This means that, for long spells, the unique African flavour of the production is lost.

When the show taps fully into the story’s African roots, it flourishes, but, when it drifts towards the style of conventional musical theatre, it flounders. In all it is a frustrating mix of the thrilling and the bland.

Runs until 4 February 2023

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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