The Scottsboro Boys

The Scottsboro Boys has been on my list of must-sees for some time after hearing roaring reviews left, right and centre. It’s very easy to see why the show has left such a strong impression – and I was surprised to be able to buy tickets so easily with the run ending in February: the show deserves more.

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The show has all the factors I look for in fantastic musical theatre: a compelling and affecting story,  a highly talented cast, oodles (yes oodles!) of theatrical flair and style, fantastically catchy and energetic musical numbers but with enough emotional punch to leave your eyes wide, mouth open, not sure in this case if you should be clapping at all.

It tells the true story of the Scottsboro boys trial in 1930s Alabama.  9 young black men (the originals all teenagers) falsely accused of raping two white women, are arrested, pushed through a flawed and prejudiced justice system where they are tried and retried, and systematically found guilty again and again, even after the original ‘evidence’ breaks down completely.

Stylistically the piece reminded me of Oh What a Lovely War: talented multi-skilled performers using song, dance and comedy to carry you through to a bitterly upsetting truth. Like OWALW the scene is set of a play about to commence: in this case in the style of an old minstrel show: with variety-show style turns  and playing with the audience.

Particular credit is due to Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon (above) who played an extraordinarily energetic double act that helped bridge the narrative across the performance with cheeky asides, comic turns and amazing, almost-pantomime characterisations.  I was also blown away by Brandon Victor Dixon who played Haywood Patterson, who’s soulful vocals and commitment to the truth left me quite heartbroken.

The only (minor) criticism I would would make is that in terms of the journey as an audience member its not hugely complicated – what’s right and wrong, fair and unfair in the story is painstakingly clear from the start. There is never a moment of doubt which means that while the facts of the story are incredibly powerful you don’t ‘experience’ the message as such: possibly missing a trick where they could have played on the audiences own assumptions. Having said that I was gripped throughout and the transparency of the case flaws fed the strength of the message.

The real Scottsboro boys were granted a posthumous pardon by the state of Alabama in 2013 – that’s right, just 2 years ago.  When the performance finished around half of the audience were on their feet in a standing ovation but I couldn’t really bring myself to stand. I thought the show was fantastic and powerful and hugely entertaining but the facts of the story left a very bitter taste.

The Scottsboro Boys is on at the Garrick Theatre until 21st February 2015

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