Patti Boulaye puts her name not just above the title but actually within it for Patti Boulaye's Sun Dance. It’s probably no false modesty, just a statement of fact that confirms this as being entirely a vanity project: Boulaye is not just the show’s star but is also credited as being responsible for the book, music and lyrics (with additional material from three others). She’s additionally co-producer, co-choreographer, and costume designer of something that she’s been trying to bring to the stage for the last decade.
Clearly, Boulaye has put her heart and soul into this; it’s a pity that the result lacks much of either. For, though Sun Dance is clearly a labour of love (and ego) for her and a labour of tremendous energy for the 24-strong cast that joins her on stage, it’s also a labour of considerable effort to sit through.
Not so much a musical as a cultural pageant of tribal African customs and dancing, the show lacks both form and structure. You would be hard pressed to work out exactly what’s going on in each of the over 20 scenes that make it up unless you bought a programme and followed the supposed narrative there.
While the simultaneous arrival of The Big Life in the West End – the first indigenously created black musical ever to do so – is a superb new book musical that galvanises the audience by committing them to an involvement with real characters, Sun Dance puts the cause of black musicals back some 30 or more years to the days when Ipi Tombi transferred from South Africa to London’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1975 to offer audiences a quaintly exotic encounter with another culture.
The tourist-travelogue element of the evening’s intentions is amplified by a pre-show film of scenes of African wildlife being projected onto the stage’s front cloth. The subsequent seemingly interminable and repetitive parade of blandly simplistic songs accompany a cosy view of happy natives celebrating their ancient customs, from rites of puberty and flirtation to polygamous marriages, warrior fighting and gospel singing.
Though the Nigerian-born Boulaye informs us earnestly in the programme that since childhood she has “made a study of African dance, choreography, culture and apparel, and Sun Dance is the culmination of this study”, there’s no attempt to relate this account to a contemporary world. The traditional choreography is occasionally galvanising, especially when a team of acrobatic Kenyans take to the stage and steal the show, but their interventions are too few to redeem the numbing effect of everything else that goes on.
While this show marks Hackney Empire’s first sustained theatrical run since the theatre re-opened last year, it won’t, alas, put the venue on the map in the same way that Ralph Fiennes indelibly did exactly a decade ago when his Almeida Hamlet was produced there.
- Mark Shenton