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Commonwealth Games 2002

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Saturday, 17 November, 2001, 17:11 GMT
South African show has impact
Umoja
The cast reflects South Africa's love affair with music
By Russell Smith

Winter may have set in in London, but the climate is considerably warmer in the West End's Shaftesbury Theatre at the moment.

A smash hit South African show has just started a run in the UK and goes by the name of Umoja - meaning the spirit of togetherness.

It charts the history of black South Africa through music and dance.

And the large cast of singers, dancers and musicians - some of whom have come from underprivileged township backgrounds themselves - make an unforgettable impact.

Although inexperienced they are young, full of energy, versatile and talented.

Wellies

Their energy makes you wonder after 10 minutes if they could possibly keep up such a pace throughout the show but they do.

Umoja
Many of the actors have never left South Africa before

The choreography is at times skilful, in the Snake Dance the dancers slide onto the stage as one.

The Gumboot Dance is unforgettable, and you'll never look at your wellies again without wondering what noises you could make with them.

Nonsikelelo Dipudi's performance as a prostitute in the street scene is memorable as are the powerful voices of singers Jabulile Dube, Zwelake Mapumulo and Silwelile Siboniso.

Siboniso Dlala's and Jackie Lombuzile's rendition of 'Paradise Road' received the loudest applause during the show and Nonhlanhla Ngcobo, as the sulky girl in the Tin Can Dance, reminded us that body language is universal.

Lament

There are also occasional moments where the audience is reminded, with a start, of the hurts inflicted by apartheid.

At the end of a Johannesburg street scene the police tear up the young newcomer's pass and led him away, as the crowd almost protests but turns back in fear, hiding their faces.

And in one lament sung in English, the women in the village sing of their loneliness as their men have to seek work in mines in the cities, "Your children grow...but you don't know".

Narrator Hope Ndaba, a kindly uncle figure, is wonderfully charming.

But if there is a weakness in the show, it is the links between the music.

How much more effective it would have been to have gone with him as a young man arriving in the big city with guitar in hand. And then to have seen him in a gold mine, in a church and in an illegal drinking club, a shebeen.

Without that story line, the audience was left to concentrate on the music, the raw energy and the enthusiasm of the cast.

And this in itself is enough to make a trip through the cold streets of W1 to the Shaftesbury Theatre worth it - to seek out the warmth of an African welcome.

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