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Review: Ain't Misbehavin' (Southwark Playhouse)

Tyrone Huntley makes his directorial debut with Oti Mabuse choreographing this classic show

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Wayne Robinson and Carly Mercedes Dyer
© Pamela Raith

A solid hit on both sides of the Atlantic when first produced in the late 1970s, Richard Maltby Jr and Murray Horwitz's Fats Waller celebration remains as effervescent as champagne in this handsome revival, which also marks the consistently impressive actor-singer Tyrone Huntley's directorial debut. If at times it is hard to see where Huntley's work ends and that of choreographer Oti Mabuse begins, this is nevertheless a stylish, fast-paced evening that aims to send audiences out on a considerable high. It succeeds scintillatingly.

A precursor to shows like Five Guys Named Moe and Smokey Joe's Cafe, this isn't a traditional musical; it doesn't even contain very much information about Fats Waller's life, but it nonetheless captures the man's raunchy, irreverent essence and evokes the spirit of the swing-infused, gin-soaked Harlem nightspots where he played piano and hung out in the 1920s and 1930s. That's not to say that it isn't dramatic — Huntley and Mabuse treat each number like a mini-play, and there is a bitterly beautiful rendition near the end of Waller and Louis Armstrong's chilling meditation on racism, "Black And Blue" — but the overall tone is one of caffeinated jollity.

Mabuse's characterful choreography for the versatile company of five is terrific, reaching its zenith in a muscular, electrifying version of "The Viper's Drag", not so much danced as ignited by a lithe, sensational Wayne Robinson. There are some elegant nods to the choreographer's Strictly Come Dancing background, and number after number builds with such dynamism and focus that one longs to see Mabuse let loose on the dances for a traditional 'book' musical.

All five cast members glitter like stars. Landi Oshinowo and Renée Lamb, both delightful and with authentic diva voices, have lots of loose-limbed, casually erotic shimmying fun as a pair of ladies of dubious morals in the cheeky "Find Out What They Like (And Give It To 'Em)". Magnetic Adrian Hansel delivers a raucously funny version of "Your Feet's Too Big" and Carly Mercedes Dyer displays stunning range, from hyperkinetic comedy to belting out ballads with entrancing gravitas.

The production looks glorious: takis' beaten gold and light bulb-festooned set takes the breath away upon entering the auditorium, at once opulent, abstract and evocative, and attractively lit by James Whiteside. The only jarring element is a weak sound design which unfortunately renders many of the lyrics unintelligible, and periodically unbalances the harmonies in the singing, and impedes the enjoyment of Alex Cockle's superb band.

The production's only other fault is an occasional tendency to oversell the comedy and the sass: material this good doesn't need that much help. One of the beauties of the piece that Maltby Jr and Horwitz put together in the first place is the fact that it allows the songs to breathe and speak (sing) for themselves. That's a small quibble though in what is otherwise a richly enjoyable piece of music theatre. Huntley, Mabuse and their firecracker of a cast have done Mr Waller proud. The joint is indeed jumpin'.