Review by Daz Gale
Musicals about legendary figures from history are always a risky business. That hasn’t stopped a brand new musical based on Nelson Mandela launching at the Young Vic. But would this be another Evita or another Diana?
Telling the story of Nelson Mandela as he fought to end apartheid in South Africa and his 27 year prison sentence, it features the direct involvement of the Mandela Family, having been co-produced by Nelson’s granddaughter Neandi and great-grandson Luvuyo Mandela. With that, you would expect a sensitive portrayal. However, the problem is it doesn’t say as much as you would hope from a show like this.
Mandela is a wildly disjointed show whose tone and structure jumps around in a way that becomes far too jarring. The inclusion of authentic South African singing and dancing adds a brilliant element and a touch of culture to the production. However, these come and go sporadically and appear to be at odds with the musical theatre nature of the show in ways that at times can feel like two contrasting productions battling to take dominance in the show.
The book by Laiona Michelle is pleasant enough at conveying a certain part of Nelson Mandelas life but it never quite reaches the potential you would necessarily hope, often struggling to convey the seriousness of the subject at hand and evoke any sense of emotional response. There is the feeling that it starts too late in Nelsons story and ends too suddenly with his release from prison. An epilogue about what this great man achieved after his release, and even an earlier scene showing him meet his adoring wife Winnie would have done so much to further the depth of the piece. The dialogue and exposition has the tendency to feel rather clunky and at times can feel hard to follow. There is seemingly the assumption that everybody in the audience is already familiar with his life story, and perhaps they should be, but if that is the case, it doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, and leaves more questions than it should for anyone who isn’t as familiar with Nelsons life as expected.
The songs by Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky are of a varying standard. There are moments of brilliance, particularly in the more vulnerable moments, usually sung by Winnie Mandela (played by Danielle Fiamanya). The rousing ‘Shadows’ and a stunning act one solo ‘Whatever Happens’ are among beautiful highlights. While not all songs land consistently, they are beautifully realised thanks to Musical Supervisor Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, musical Director Sean Mayes and Orchestrator Sam Young who bring them to life in a glorious way.
There are some fantastic elements to Mandela. An initially bare looking stage boasts some gorgeous details and versatility in its transformations thanks to a superb set design from Hannah Beachler. Costume design from Fay Fullerton, some truly remarkable choreography from Gregory Maqoma, expert sound design from Paul Gatehouse and stunning lighting from Jon Clark means the show always looks and sounds spectacular, even when the writing in itself falls short.
The greatest attribute Mandela has for it is its stunning cast. Michael Luwoye is thrilling as Nelson Mandela, charming and commanding everybody in the vicinity with his masterclass performance of a role that must be challenging. Other highlights among the cast are a criminally underused Earl Carpenter as the Prime Minister, Stewart Clarke as Warden and a standout turn from Posi Morakinyo as Nelsons son Thembi.
The undoubted star of this show though belongs to Danielle Fiamanya in her showstopping turn as Winnie. Danielle is one of those performers who seems to get better with every role she steps into, and Mandela is no exception. It’s here where she gets to showcase her versatility and immeasurable talent as an actress, bringing the house down with a nuanced, assured and emotional performance. Any opportunity we have to hear her phenomenal vocals feels like a gift from the Gods in a performance that manages to elevate occasionally underwhelming text and lyrics to make them better than they perhaps ought to be.
Mandela really gave me pause for thought. On paper, it really should have worked but there was an apparent disconnect to me personally that I couldn’t quite place. Is the issue that the show has huge shows to fill and would never be able to do this legend justice, or is it in the writing in itself? There were moments where it felt like the biggest problem was the direction (or, at times, lack of). While Schele Williams direction can feel exciting, it doesn’t quite work ion this setting. Moments such as a sudden blackout in the second act, an unsatisfying act one closer and an incohesive tone throughout show there is work to be done to get this show where it needs to be.
New musicals are always something to be celebrated, and while they may not always work on their first outing, it has been proven time and time again that a little tweaking can turn even the most problematic of shows into something special. With Mandela, it feels like it has all the right elements there – a great story about a legendary figure, an incredible cast and some fantastic production value to boast throughout. However, when combined these elements didn’t mix together to form something strong in the way you would hope, which felt frustrating as a theatre lover and audience member.
One thing Mandela did really drive home is how unique the theatre experience is for each person in sometimes extreme ways. I couldn’t help but notice the woman next to me towards the end of the show – literally on the edge of her seat, completely gripped and overcome by what she had seen. It was beautiful to see and had me wishing I could have shared that reaction. But this in itself is the beauty of theatre. From my own experience, a great man such as Nelson Mandela deserves a great musical and, in its current form, Mandela isn’t befitting of his legacy. I truly believe there is a fantastic show in here somewhere – it just hasn’t been fully realised yet.
Mandela is at The Young Vic until 4th February 2023. Tickets from www.youngvic.org
Photos by Helen Murray