Book by Jim Lewis (plus additional lyrics) and Bill T. Jones, music and lyrics by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti
RNT Olivier Theatre
Since the arrival of Nicholas Hytner, the National has largely given up on musicals. Where Sir Trevor Nunn used them to keep the finances healthy, his successor has done so by other means.
Now, the form has become a real rarity on the South Bank, only given voice it seems for Broadway transfers, Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner being the last before this African extravaganza.
The theatre has pushed the boat out to accommodate Marina Draghici's holistic design which stretches way beyond the stage space with flags and screens spreading out into the auditorium, frequently joined by members of a large cast, to tell the story of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti through his music.
The colourful images, both painted and projected, tell their own stories, featuring Black icons and paintings in a Basquiat (or in some cases almost Miro) style, transporting the audience back to Fela's Lagos Shrine for the re-staging of his final concert in 1978, a homage to his late mother.
As one might expect when Bill T. Jones is involved as director/choreographer, dance is generally the most significant element, especially in a shapeless first 20 minutes before the story gets going. That is not to denigrate the performers or choreography, both of which are all that one could hope for.
Fela Kuti was one of those individuals of the sixties and beyond who initially laughed at the privileged status afforded as son of one of the most powerful and determined women in Nigeria and quite probably the whole of Africa.
Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti, sung operatically by Melanie Marshall, led the women's power movement from its infancy until it became a threat to streams of corrupt presidents.
While her son tried hard to drop out, travelling to England and then the United States, enticed by sex 'n' drugs 'n' Afrobeat, his destiny was firmly embedded in those noble genes.
While his music became legendary, Fela also gradually donned his mother's mantle, fighting the government and using his popularity to promote political goals of Black Power and the liberalisation of a brutal police state.
By the end though, his version of a mini-republic rubbed too many powerful people up the wrong way so that the evening climaxes in sober tragedy, belying so much that had gone before.
This production, under the direction of Jones himself, is at its best when the dancing becomes feverish. Beyond that, it all rests on the central performance of Sahr Ngaujah, who created the role of Fela on Broadway and holds court almost without a break.
Not only does he sing, dance and narrate with remarkable energy, Ngaujah also plays a mean (red) saxophone to support a sizeable band.
If you are into Afrobeat and the modernised traditional dance of the region, this will prove an unadulterated delight. Otherwise, at three hours, which is half an hour longer than the Broadway version, Fela! is likely to feel entertaining but extremely self-indulgent.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher