Mandela: A New Musical, Young Vic review ★★★★

Showing at the Young Vic, Mandela: A New Musical about the great South African freedom fighter will put some fire in your heart, if not in your hearth, this winter

Michael Luwoye and Danielle Fiamanya in Mandela at Young Vic. Photo: Helen Murray
There’s a fire in the belly of the new Nelson Mandela musical, charting the anti-apartheid activist’s fight for Black South African rights, which led to him being branded a terrorist and locked up in prison for 27 years. We know what happened next: Mandela was eventually released and later became the country's first president and its first black head of state. But the combination of Laiona Michelle’s book, Greg Dean Borowsky and Shaun Borowsky’s music and lyrics, and the tight ensemble performing at the Young Vic manage to rekindle the anguish, resilience and devastating personal losses experienced by the whole Mandela family during the battle for freedom.

Mandela: A New Musical is a sung-through slice of political history. It doesn’t tell Mandela’s whole story, instead devoting a slim opening segment to his time leading protests with the uMkhonto we Sizwe, and a similarly short denouement to his reunions with loved ones following his release. The majority of the narrative charts his time in prison, and how this impacted his wife Winnie and five children growing up without a father.

Ntsikelelo Nicholas Vani, Michael Luwoye, Akmed Junior Khemalai and Shiv Rabheru in Mandela at Young Vic. Photo: Helen Murray

From prison, Mandela was no longer able to fight for his fellow citizens to be able to own land, or be paid a decent living wage, or enjoy the political rights of their white counterparts. Neither was he granted leave from Robben Island to see the body of his son Thembi who died in a car accident. While passive moments in Mandela’s struggles, these are important inclusions in his story which, delicately directed by Schele Williams and acted by Michael Luwoye (who captures Mandela’s gentle fierceness and clipped, slightly nasally voice with perfection) remind audiences of his remarkable patience and unwavering strength in the face of harsh adversity.

Danielle Fiamanya as Winnie is also impressive, growing from doting wife to fiery freedom fighter as the story progresses. We see, and sympathise with, her return to the streets with new venom after 16 months of rough treatment in prison.

Together, Luwoye and Fiamanya sizzle delivering a sung-through argument about the best direction to take their fight. Most of the songs, which are supported by a six-piece, off-stage band, are very good. Two powerful opening numbers deliver us straight into the heart of the early apartheid struggles – and there’s no sugarcoating the violence: we see the bodies of protesters lying face down. Another highlight comes from Stewart Clarke as Mandela’s prison warden, whose change-of-heart number is full of raw zeal.

The cast of Mandela at Young Vic. Credit: Helen Murray

The Borowskys’ score evokes gospel music in places, uniting the cast as a chorus to perform energised harmonies. Gregory Maqoma’s choreography sees the unit perform dance routines taking inspiration from both street and tribal styles, which look particularly striking on Hannah Beachler’s terracotta-coloured set, where cracks in the floor appear as beams of light, and an oppressive strip of barbed wire hangs above the stage.

Some passages of dialogue are childishly clichéd, (‘My dearest Winnie, I can’t believe I finally get to hold you in my arms’). A couple of songs are overly sentimental too, such as the bedtime number in which daughters Zeni and Zindzi imagine their resemblance to the father they’ve been denied a relationship with, but these quibbles don't undermine the show too much.

Mandela is a moving and impassioned study of the most trying period in the great freedom fighter’s extraordinary history.

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What Mandela: A New Musical, Young Vic review
Where The Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London, SE1 8LZ | MAP
Nearest tube Waterloo (underground)
When 29 Nov 22 – 04 Feb 23, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
Price £12.50+
Website Click here for more information and to book

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