My first physical encounter with the world of leather and…
It can get to a point in life where you’ve seen too much, and you can’t unsee it. A jaded nature is hardly worth sympathy, but it does present a challenge when seeking artistic kicks. Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Southwark Playhouse hits that mark with soul and spectacle.
There’s a fizz of excitement on eyeing the set. It’s a glittering, Deco tribute to the clubs of the Harlem Renaissance. The design perfectly evokes a debauched swing club, rather than a theatre in Elephant & Castle.
The band take their places with the humble ceremony of a seasoned troupe and seal the illusion of a vintage gig. The five-strong cast hit the stage with a lively, acrobatic intro that gives a stomping clue to what’s in store. It’s clear from the offset that they’re a uniquely talented team. It’s a thrill to know that you can just sit back and grin, while brilliant professionals do their best work.
It helps that Ain’t Misbehavin’ boasts a top roster of tunes. Essentially, it’s a revue of songs, written or recorded by Fats Waller, distilled into a 2-hour cocktail. If you’re not sold on musical theatre, but are partial to jazz, blues and swing, this show is a blinder.
Cure for the blues
We attended Ain’t Misbehavin’ on Bank Holiday Monday. Spirits were sagging, moods were dwindling. We didn’t know it, but this show was the potion for those ills. From the moment the cast dazzled their way onto a brassy set, a smile cracked my face and stayed there.
If it was possible to bottle this mood boosting show, the NHS could cheer up the nation with Waller pills instead of antidepressants.
Adrian Hansel excels as the crooner to make you swoon. Cocky, hunky and with moves a-plenty, he raises the temperature with handsome flair and flashy skills. Carly Mercedes Dyer serves a goofy turn with a campy, knowing style that’s utterly Walleresque.
When she gets her moment in the spotlight, stripped of the winks and squawks, Dyer devastates. Landi Oshinowo has one helluva soul voice and captivates with a nuanced turn as the sometimes sour lush, broken by showbiz and men.
Carefree sass and saucy raunch comes courtesy of Renée Lamb, who turns a song about stockings (When the Nylons Bloom Again) into a scorching torch song. Wayne Robinson seems in Hansel’s shadow ‘til his solo ode to reefer, The Viper’s Drag. This drowsy lament to Mary-Jane paired with the sleazy wail of the trumpet (Elias Jordan Atkinson) proves an absolute show-stopper. This is an ensemble cast (and band) that’s rare in its wealth of talent. All are on point and their teamwork is a technical sensation.
Tyrone Huntley’s directorial debut is a triumph, and Strictly Come Dancing pro Oti Mabuse shows her considerable chops with choreography that’ sharp and fresh, despite its vintage roots. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is no show for a history lesson, despite the rich narrative of Fat’s Waller’s life. He was once kidnapped at gun point and forced to play Al Capone’s birthday party for 3 days solid. He left that gig wasted and loaded with cash, but living proof that he’s the performer of choice for Manhattan elites AND organised crime kings.
It shouldn’t be of note to witness a London show with a black creative team and cast in 2019, but here we are. And it’s a buzz to behold. Highlighting a cultural movement among black artists prior to The Great Depression, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a window onto the escapist hedonism and daily struggle that comes with desperate times and political strife. The message is simple; this ship’s going down, but we’re gonna party anyway. It’s a sentiment for those times, and now. It leaves your feet tapping on the bronzed dancefloor as you head home with a wistful smile and hope in your heart.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ is at Southwark Playhouse until 1 June