Review: Zoonation - Some Like it Hip Hop - Peacock Theatre

Performance: 3 May - 30 June 2013
Reviewed by Sanjoy Roy - Friday 10 May 2013

ZooNation's 'Some Like it Hip Hop' Photo: Simon Prince

Performance reviewed: 7 May

Kate Prince’s company ZooNation first made a splash – a very big splash – with the hip-hop dance musical Into the Hoods (2006). It became the longest running dance show in West End history [five months at the Novello Theatre] and garnered heaps of fans and accolades. Well, listen up: their follow-up show Some Like it Hip Hop – premiered in 2011 and back now for a third run – is better. Not only better: more important.

The set-up goes like this. In a citadel ruled by Governor Okeke (glowering Duwane Taylor), books have been banned and women are only allowed to do “women’s work” – cleaning, cooking, serving. Kicked out of town for misbehaving, best friends Kerri and Jo-Jo (Teneisha Bonner and Sarah Richards, both terrific) drag themselves up into suits, boots and false moustaches and swagger their way back, walking right into jobs marked “men only”. Hot on their heels, a feisty little lady called Oprah (feisty little Natasha Gooden, clearly made for the part) smuggles herself into the city carrying a secret: the key to the patriarch’s heart. And thence the story turns and twists through a series of comedic set-pieces featuring macho makeovers, crossed love-lines, unlikely revolutions (the bookworm turns), some soul-searching and some sweet inspiration.

It’s a blast. Most hip-hop shows are “showy”, with dazzling displays of street-dance style, and this one is no exception: there are backflips and catflips and slides and locks and what have you, all primed and pumped in perfect synch to the beat. More unusually, the show doesn’t feel at all like spectacle, because it loves its characters: bespectacled nerd Simeon (Tommy Franzén – face of a baby, body of a boxer), guilelessly busting flashy moves as if blissfully unaware of his own strength; sweet-natured Sudsy (Shaun Smith), an artless loser with slides as effortless and smiles as sunny as Gene Kelly’s; Kerri and Jo-Jo, not showing off but matching the menfolk to keep up appearances; and Okeke, with solitary outbursts of krumping that rattle his chest like the heart he keeps caged inside it.

If dance and dancing form the body of the show, music and musicians are its lifeblood, flowing all over from R ‘n’ B to soul, funk and gospel chorus – all thanks to sassy singers Sheree Dubois and Elliotte Williams-N’Dure, musicians DJ Walde and Josh Cohen, and lyricist Kate Prince herself. The music drives the bounce and the swing of the dancing while also providing the emotional soundtrack of happiness and hurt, passion and above all exuberance.

It’s all treated with a real tight touch, and there is heaps to delight in. Narrator Tachia Newall turns his beatboxing into spooly sound effects as the cast fast-forward and rewind through scenes like a video on remote control. There’s a marvellous split-screen effect for a doubled love scene, one in a laundry the other in a cell, the music cutting effortlessly between upbeat and smoochy while backing singers pop up like crooning cupids from behind clothes-lines or inside washing machines. Even the final encore is a surprise and delight: an entire music number, zilch to do with anything, given up for the sheer freakin’ fun of it.

So it’s a great show; why is it important? Because it makes reading books look not only smart, but cool. Because its male heroes are a geek and a loser, and that’s exactly why you like them. Because it embodies, with good grace and great humour, a feminist message that is both sympathetic and inspiring, that has a heart and a soul – and a brain. And because when you hear the song It’s a Man’s World, it’s hard not to think of Prince herself, a woman working in a man’s world. Not just as a woman in hip hop, though that certainly has its machismo; but a woman working in choreography, which – as much discussed in the dance press recently – is a man’s world too. And the final reason? Because Kate Prince manages to make all of that into fantastic entertainment. R-e-s-p-e-c-t! Sock it to her.

Some Like it Hip Hop is at the Peacock Theatre until 30 June
For this third West End season, Tommy Franzén returns to the role of Simeon, alternating with Denny Haywood (who starred in the 2012 UK tour); Teneisha Bonner reprises her role as Kerri, which she shares with new cast member Sammi Lee-Jayne; and Lizzie Gough completes the leading lineup, returning to the role of Jo-Jo for the second half of the run, while Sarah Richards (who played Jo-Jo on tour) plays the role until 2 June.

Sanjoy Roy writes about dance for the Guardian, New Statesman, Dance Gazette, Dancing Times and Pulse.

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