Theatre Royal Stratford East
True to form the Theatre Royal Stratford East has once again produced a piece of theatre deeply engaged with the local community and equally as professional as musical theatre comes. Like Five Guys Named Mo, Da Boyz should be a hit; it should tour and bring its invigorating blend of dance, song and comedy to audiences all over the country. It is a celebration of all that is best in urban youth culture and should be a showcase for some considerable talent.
Initially, Da Boyz was created as a project with the Theatre Royal's Youth Theatre in a summer workshop. It is a re-mix of music from the 1938 Broadway musical The Boys From Syracuse by Rodgers and Hart (a musical adaptation of Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, itself based on an original from the pen of the Roman playwright Terence) by DJ Excalibah and MC Skolla and directed by ULTZ. A cast of thirty young people give 110% until the refurbished Victorian theatre is bouncing, the audience twitching to the body-popping and rocking with mirth. I'm a sucker for street dancing and this is deliriously diverse in styles, but includes enough break-dancing par excellence to satisfy my craving for athletic and acrobatic exhilaration.
The Antipolus twins and their twin servants, the Dromios, are separated in childhood by a storm at sea, the one pair returning to Syracuse with their father, the others washing ashore in Ephesus where they grow up integrated into the community. A comedy of mistaken identity ensues, including all sorts of shenanigans, when the Syracuse twins arrive in Ephesus. Antipolus of Syracuse unwittingly sleeps with his brother's wife while falling in love with her sister (with some beautiful singing by Lorna Brown and Vanya Taylor). Dromio of Syracuse is less enthusiastic as the sexually rampant wife of his identical twin pursues him with voracious demands and demeaning cajolery. Antipolus of Ephesus has a mistress, performed in flamboyant style by Susan Lawson-Reynolds. The entanglements are unravelled by a guest-appearance by rapper Rodney P, obviously a hit with large sections of the audience.
Any production of this tale, whether it be Terence's, Shakespeare's or Rodgers and Hart's, sinks or swims on its Dromios in particular on their physical comedy. In Da Boyz, Darren Hart and Kat are a delight, physically funny without slipping into the pitfall of clichéd clowning, and utterly loveable. One other character stands out in this adaptation, happily given more material than in the original, and in proportion to his talent: the Sergeant, a policeman parody performed with panache and physical dexterity by Nolan Weekes, who brings his considerable presence to bear linking up the various threads.
There is really some star material in this production, not only among the principals, but also among the superb backing vocals and the chorus line (and what a chorus line!) in general. There is a great deal of individuality in Da Boyz that ULTZ (a veteran of originality) welds into a cast-iron ensemble imbuing the production with its ultimate strength. You might catch this show five years down the line in some plush West End venue, but you'll never forgive yourself for not being there in its natural habitat, the East End of London. You can sit in the circle or dance in the stalls where all the seats have been removed. It's not just a show - it's an event.
During the interval I looked out of the window to where three or four girls between the ages of 6 and 10 where standing on benches in the square, doing a dance routine. The terrace of the café was full of young people. The audience was a multicultural mix and, while the age range inclined to the 20s and 30s, there were enough oldies like myself enjoying themselves. Theatre Royal remains true to the spirit of one-time artistic director Joan Littlewood in creating a community theatre that equally reaches out beyond the locality and invites participation in celebrating culture at its closest to the lived experience.
"Da Boyz" runs until 31st May
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher