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Slamdunk

Nitro
Contact Theatre, Manchester
(2004)

This latest production from Nitro, Britain's leading Black theatre company, is playing to packed out audiences at Contact. Co-created by the company with internationally renowned dancer and choreographer Benji Reid, Slamdunk is a hip-hop musical blending basketball, rap and street dance.

It is a fast-paced tale of the rise and fall of Cory, the best ball player on the estate. He wants to leave his old-time team the Zeros and join with rival team the A-list. But things go wrong as soon as he turns his back on his friends and family, and burning ambition threatens to destroy him.

A stylish set, striking lighting effects and outstanding music and dance combine to make this a very slick production. Yet these alone do not hold up a musical. Slamdunk is missing perhaps the most vital element: that of a gripping story and appealing characters. Fast-paced action is an understatement: blink twice and you've missed the whole plot.

What its bare narrative does have is a strong Black Power-esque message, that the only way to achieve higher things is to stick with the brotherhood; that any drive for self-improvement is a dangerous thing and doomed to failure if you leave your roots behind. Whilst one cannot question the worth of collective struggle, it here left a worryingly bitter aftertaste, in discouraging Cory's reaching for the stars, leaving ambition castrated in the ghetto.

The best moments are certainly the ensemble dance routines. These men can do things with basketballs that you didn't think were possible. The show is a veritable circus of and bouncing and bending and balancing, and of course, Slamdunk-ing. But they are not clowns and they take their skill to the limit giving sharply focused performances.

However, the crude exposition - in fact, unadulterated cheesiness - of the story to me jarred uncomfortably with the raw street argot which was the tongue of its telling. It was a story told as you might to a group of schoolchildren, using language that you don't hear on television before 11pm. As such it is a little confusing as to just who this production's audience is. Still, there was a very diverse and enthusiastic crowd that you cannot see anywhere else in Manchester, not to mention a vibrant and electric atmosphere of expectation and celebration. It was close to how I imagine theatre to have felt like when Shakespeare was wowing the Globe. It feels wrong to criticise a show that the audience evidently enjoyed so much. Any production that can bring in new people to the theatre and keep them there is surely worth much more than a star rating in a newspaper column.

Reviewer: Charlotte Payne