Saturday 30 April 2016

Show Boat @ New London Theatre

Show Boat @ New London Theatre

It's fitting that a show about the joy of theatre should itself be such a joy to watch. This revival of the 1927 classic from Kern and Hammerstein has docked at the New London Theatre after a successful run at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre, but it has an upstream battle on its hands in the fight for audience attention.

This isn't a piece of high octane event theatre. And there's no star power to draw in the crowds. Instead it's refreshingly quaint, subtle and overflows with a charm that you can't help but love. Aboard the titular show boat, the Cotton Blossom, is a microcosm of romance, family feuds and racial politics, with a love of theatre drawing together the show's various narrative threads.

More than this, though, it's a show about acceptance. Here we see the show at its best and worst. Kern's wonderful score is a beautiful fusion of operetta and bluesy negro songs; the whole cast come together to perform Alistair David's choreography with unsegregated gusto; and the black characters are given equal opportunity to touchingly portray family life - a first for the time.

Yet we're also expected to accept that a mother and daughter would allow an estranged husband and father back into their lives after years away, an example of the old fashioned sexual politics seen throughout the show. And that's after a second act that moves too swiftly through time as it struggles to wrap up the story.

Show Boat, though, is a vitally important show in the history of musical theatre, integrating music with story and black with white for the first time. Even if it does show its age, the cast are sympathetic to its classic status. As the romantic leads, Chris Peluso and Gina Beck offer some delicate classical singing; Alex Young and Danny Collins make quite the comedy pairing as Ellie May and Frank; and Sandra Marvin truly leads the black cast as the amusingly sassy Queenie. Rebecca Trehearn may only have a couple of short songs as the faded actress Julie La Verne, but her stunning vocal is a real stand out.

Emmanuel Kojo also shines as he leads the men in a softly rumbling rendition of Ol' Man River. And as the song suggests, this joyful, powerful and important show deserves to keep rolling along in the West End for some time to come.

4/5

Watch: Show Boat runs at the New London Theatre until January 2017.