NOTE: The following review dates from November 2007 and The Magic Flute's earlier run at the Young Vic where it ran in repertory with A Christmas Carol. We expect something special each year at the Young Vic, but even by their exceptional standards of seasonal fare this is quite something: a pairing of Dickens and Mozart narrative masterpieces relocated in a South African township setting and performed with unbridled passion and explosive joy.

A Christmas Carol ((Ikrismas Kherol) and The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) come from the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, directed by Mark Dornford-May for the newly formed Isango/Portobello company, led by the glorious opera singer Pauline Malefane as both Scrooge and the Queen of the Night.

Played on a bare, tilted stage and surrounded by a battery of marimbas and percussion instruments, both shows offer the spectacle of spiritual transformation through a series of revelations and adventures. In Scrooge’s case, an insensitive gold mining boss is reawakened to her own tough past in a shanty town where she learned how to sing and survive. In the Mozart, Tamino rescues the Queen’s daughter after falling in love with her picture.

These journeys through a cultural landscape, electrified by music and ritual, are an object lesson in how to create authentic, vibrant theatre from seemingly remote sources. The Dickens plays for an uninterrupted ninety minutes, the Mozart for two and a half hours, with little omitted from either story and, in the Mozart, astonishingly, very few notes. Tamino’s magic flute is covered by a silver trumpet and Tiny Tim is a girl on crutches seeking signatures for her school sponsorship form.

Scrooge’s past is evoked in a film that is dovetailed with the live singing. From the descent to the mine, thrillingly done in the dark pierced with lights and chants, to the appearance of a female Ghost of Christmas Present in a chic white suit, the story is re-imagined as a stern warning to remember your roots. The chorus of miners and townsfolk spill over the stage in a tidal wave that Scrooge, seen cutting a mean merger deal with the Fezziwigs’ clothing business, can resist for only so long.

The various tests and trials in The Magic Flute culminate in the encounter with the high priest Sarastro, here played as a chieftain in white robes whose repertoire of low notes is magically shared among his tribal fraternity. This hinterland of spirits and comrades transforms Schikaneder’s pantomimic libretto into a convincingly indigenous and beautiful fable.

The cast is simply and inspirationally superb, while much credit redounds on the musical input and popularising genius of artistic collaborator Charles Hazlewood, the lighting of Mannie Manim (director of the Baxter Theatre), the infectious choreography of Lungelo Ngamlana and the brilliant, colourful costumes of Annamarie Seegers.

- Michael Coveney