Havana Rakatan

Sadler's Wells and Congo Productions

New Victoria Theatre, Woking

(2008)

Review by Sheila Connor

It is a good idea to read the programme notes before the show as they chart the development of Cuban music through the centuries and tell how it evolved through many different cultures, but it is not strictly necessary for enjoyment of the show which is basically a great night out. These Cubans know how to party, and the audience is very happy to party along with them.

The show begins in a rush - as if the dancers can hardly wait to begin -and continues fast and furious as one number rapidly follows another, hardly waiting for the enthusiastic applause. It begins at the Malecon, the meeting place for the youth of Havana which is where boy meets girl, and I was quite thrilled to see that the backdrop depicted the identical view we had from our Havana hotel. It brought back some happy memories. Here the dancers are in street clothes - casual for the boys and the girls in short frilly skirts. Cuban girls are reputed to be the most beautiful in the world and judging by those on stage here I can well believe this. The men are something special too, and there is a 'Chippendale' moment when they stand in line and slowly, very slowly, take off their shirts. The volume of appreciation from the audience reached fever pitch as their hands moved to trouser zips - just as they blacked out the stage!

Projections on the backdrop changed to various views of Cuba - the country areas and sunsets seen through the trees, as well as the old buildings of Havana, and Act One charts the evolution of Cuban music from many different areas of Africa (brought by the slaves) and from the Spanish colonials. The fusion is nicely illustrated by a sinuous, exotic flamenco dancer encircled by grass-skirted African warriors. They omitted to mention the input from the Americans during the last century.

The seven accomplished musicians have a trumpet and guitars, but in the first act they rely mostly on percussion with the melodies provided by the singers - their beautiful, clear, resonant voices effortlessly filling the vast auditorium, and providing music as the slaves used to do, but this is not just a history lesson. The second act brings us up to date so far, with the more familiar rhythms of mambo, rumba and cha cha, and with facets of Cuban life illustrated in the dance numbers. The fourteen dancers and three singers appear to be three times that number as they work so hard, so fast, and with frequent changes of costumes and variety of styles of dance, and appear to be enjoying every minute as much as the audience. Director and choreographer Nilda Guerra scoured the country to find the best dancers in the republic - and she found them.

Costumes too are sumptuous and colourful. The stage is constantly filled with a kaleidoscope of swirling skirts and flashing brown limbs, with hips and bottoms swaying as only the Cubans can, in "a joyful exaltation of sexuality - music, dance, song, love, alcohol and drama".

The show is slick, joyous, sensual, flamboyant and sensational, and they even finished with a party in the foyer where everyone could learn the salsa. Yes - of course I joined in! Definitely a night to remember!

Transferring to the the Peacock Theatre, London from 21st May to 22nd June.