Note: The following review dates from Gumboots' run at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It continues on a national tour until early December, including a West End engagement at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue from 20 September to 9 October.
From humble beginnings in a Soweto youth club, Gumboots has blossomed into what deserves to be one of this year's hottest tickets. The creative team behind the Tap Dogs phenomenon has helped transform a joyously rhythmic song-and-dance expression of working-class South African culture into a commercial entertainment of worldwide potential.
But Gumboots is about something more than a well-packaged and promising business report. The show lifts a dozen men (the original six performers, supplemented by three back-up singer/dancers and three musicians) out of the ghetto and catapults them into the spotlight, where they belong. Grinning with tireless, sweat-soaked passion, these bare-chested beauties are a stomping and singing sensation.
The roots of gumboot dancing are in the South African goldmines and the sad, angering history of apartheid. Often shackled in near-darkness, the workers might also have been up to their knees in infected water. Rather than drain the mines (too costly and troublesome), the white bosses issued heavy, black Wellingtons, or gumboots. Forbidden to talk, the labourers found this footwear provided the perfect flat bottoms with which to slap out messages. Eventually their Morse code style of communication evolved into a unique dance form.
Cynics might question how entertainment can arise from misery. But Gumboots stems from genuine triumph of the human spirit. It does not feel like cultural exploitation. Rather, it is an infectiously up-beat experience, one of the best parties around and also unexpectedly moving. The company is gifted with incredible stamina. They pound out complex rhythms with a zealous, superbly drilled facility. Vocally they are also in top form, making the show as much of a musical glory as a dance event.
The performers, vivid personalities and outrageous flirts, shine with eagerness to please. Although it seems unfair to single anyone out, Vincent Ncabashe is a terrific frontman. Tall Sipho Ndlela, aptly named Themba Short, and skinny, six-pack-stomached Thami Nkwanyana provide exceptional support. All of them mug wonderfully, particularly during a jaunty, mischievous parade-of-beefcake number. It is a real kick to see such gorgeous men revelling in, while sending up, their own hunkiness.
Like the show's overall structure, Nigel Triffitt's set is unmistakably reminiscent of Tap Dogs. It is a tiered series of moveable stairs and platforms built round a scaffold. The idea is that the cast gradually shifts these pieces to construct a mineshaft. Unfortunately, there was an opening-night glitch. Perhaps a smoother operation will make the set seem more of an enhancement to the show and less of an over-elaborate, superfluous distraction.
Percussion or ethnic-based spectacles such as Stomp and Riverdance have become one of the decade's strongest showbiz genres. Conceptually, Gumboots owes perhaps too great a debt to Tap Dogs. But thanks to Zenzi Mbuli's direction of an amazingly vital ensemble, it represents a total victory over the formulaic. Gumboots is its own irresistible animal.