Trust the title, not the plot synopsis. A Man of Good Hope is based on Jonny Steinberg's 2015 book about the life of Asad Abdullahi, who at eight-years-old sees his mother shot by militia men in Somalia's civil war in 1991, and must flee his country. A peripatetic life of hard-scrabble and violence unfolds, as he makes his way down through Africa, meeting and losing first a kindly cousin, then a wife and child, then yet more relatives in xenophobic attacks in South African townships. His story is one of repeated struggle and loss - yet told by the Isango Ensemble, it burns bright with humanity and hope.
A Cape Town based company made up of performers from townships surrounding the city, the Isango Ensemble offer a brilliantly vibrant evening. The show is a colourful patchwork of forms: simple, direct storytelling segues into soaring opera; foot-stomping, booty-shaking dance sequences fill the stage, while marimbas and drums provide an irresistible, bubbling score. A large cast flicker between different instruments and parts alike – at one point, even offering a whistle stop tour of the countries Asad travels through, briefly blazing into the songs, rhythms and dances of Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe (all seemingly without fear of cultural stereotyping).
Four actors play Asad, from a scared but smart little boy (the sweetly plucky Phielo Makitle) to a grown man finally hoping to emigrate to America - where, he was once told, everyone is rich and there are (oh the irony) no guns. The violence and rejections he encounters as a refugee - both casual and tribal - are often sobering, but there are moments of real joy here too.
There are stage-filling song-and-dance numbers as he learns to speak English, or how to trade, flinging oranges around. His quickness with languages allows him to becomes translator-cum-broker between speakers of Somali and Amharic, or Swahili and English – these languages rendered as warbled gobbledygook in one comically astute scene. Performances and clarity of delivery can vary across the cast, but Busisiwe Ngejane, as his first wife Foosiya, stands out with a particularly sassy, memorable performance.
A Man of Good Hope is a first for Isango, who have previously done canonical classics (La bohème; A Midsummer Night's Dream) with a South African twist; this production sees them exploring the darker side of recent, post-Apartheid society.
To the irrepressibly ambitious Asad, South Africa appears a land of plenty, a place to get rich – but it's revealed to be as dangerous for him as war-torn home country. The country's optimism has faded, we're told, with inequality still rife; in recent years, anti-immigrant feeling has soared. Somalian shopkeepers setting up in black South African townships find themselves targets for race-driven lootings and killings.
A Man of Good Hope covers a huge amount of ground, infusing an already drama-stuffed individual's story with some sense of the political turmoil of the continent; it skips through locations and characters as rapidly as it does moods and artforms. It's a testament to the springy energy of the Isango Ensemble and the clear-headed direction of Mark Dornford-May that this coheres so effectively, feeling both seamless and brisk. Warmly recommended.
A Man of Good Hope is at the Young Vic until 12 November.