Wednesday 19 November 2014


Theatre review: The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys is the third musical I have seen in as many weeks that references the story of Rosa Parks, an African American women who refused to gave up her seat on the bus to a white passenger in the 1950s, which goes to show how topical racial discrimination remains in today's day and age.

One of the most harrowing examples of this in recent American history is the Scottsboro Boys case, in which nine African American boys were accused of raping two white women and were in the first instance sentenced to death without much of a trial or even proof of the allegations. Even when one of the women admitted her testimony was a lie, the nine accused boys remained in prison for the duration of many trials, spanning years - in some cases decades - of their lives.

The general consensus is that musicals should be fun escapisms from every day life, so David Thompson (book), John Kander and Fred Ebb (music and lyrics) took a huge leap by taking this serious topic and turning it into a song and dance heavy stage show. Their bravery more than paid off as after a sell-out run at the Young Vic the show has returned to London and is now gracing the boards of the Garrick Theatre in the West End.

(c) Johan Persson

For a musical based on such distressing subject matter it was surprising how colourful and cheerful it was, especially in the beginning. The songs were loud and lively and filled with a sheer joie de vivre, and especially the earlier numbers were reminiscent of Tony Award-winning musical Newsies, which also relies heavily on a predominantly male cast and impressive choreography to accompany the music.

The similarities end there however, because whereas Newsies is a more conservative portrayal of a historical event (with added song and dance numbers, that is), The Scottsboro Boys is more theatrical in approach as it is told in the form of old minstrel shows. Though where in the original performances white people would blacken their faces, this time around it's the primarily dark cast that take an over-the-top approach to portraying their white counterparts.

Presenting the story this way was an ingenious choice to add another layer of social commentary to the production and make the audience really think about skewed racial perceptions - some of which are sadly still present today. Though towards the end this approach became almost too much of a caricature, detracting somewhat from the emotionally heavy core story.

(c) Johan Persson

Even though the minstrel presentation didn't work for the entirety of the production, it was an interesting and unique approach within the musical theatre genre and complemented well by a strong score and impressive choreography. And I haven't even mentioned the excellent cast yet, who sing, act and dance their socks off on the Garrick Theatre stage - true triple threats all-around.

(c) Johan Persson

The Scottsboro Boys is playing at the Garrick Theatre and is taking bookings until 21 February 2015, you can buy tickets here.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous31/1/15 16:21

    I agree with a lot of your review. I found the style of the show somewhat old hat and patronising though and isn't the sort of musical that belongs in the West End, anywhere in modern Britain for that matter now. It's 2015, not 1815!!!

    I found it too silly in tone for what really should have been portrayed as a serious drama, that though based on events 85 years ago is sadly all too pertinent today with what's been going on in America in cities like Ferguson and Missouri.

    This is my full take on the show.


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