REVIEW: AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ (Southwark Playhouse) ★★★★★

Ain’t Misbehavin’ is a musical revue with a book by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby Jr and music by various composers and lyricists celebrating black musicians of the 1920s and 1930s. The show was so popular when it first appeared in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s East 73rd Street cabaret in 1978 that a full-scale Broadway production was developed opening later that year and ran until 1982. Following the show’s success on Broadway, a West End production opened in 1979 at Her Majesty’s Theatre and was revived in 1995 at Tricycle Theatre and the Lyric Theatre. In the first London revival in almost 25 years, the Southwark Playhouse is staging Ain’t Misbehavin’ following the shows premiere at the Mercury Theatre Colchester in March.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ celebrates the legendary jazz musician Fats Waller and his energetic, exuberant and effervescent music. This musical revue steps back into the raunchy 1920’s where Manhattan nightclubs like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom were the playgrounds of high society and Lenox Avenue dives were filled with piano players banging out the new beat known as swing. Ain’t Misbehavin’ takes the audience on a journey with an evening of rowdy, raunchy, and humorous songs defining a period of American musical history, the Harlem Renaissance – where musicians were free to experiment with new styles and joints were jumpin’ with talented dancers, singers and instrumentalists jamming to a new beat known as swing!

Tyrone Huntley (Jesus Christ Superstar, Leave to Remain) makes his directorial debut with this production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and the show features Adrian Hansel (original Seaweed in the West End production of Hairspray, Five Guys Named Moe at Marble Arch Theatre), Renée Lamb (Chiffon in Little Shop of Horrors at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and Catherine of Aragon in the original London cast of Six at the Arts Theatre), Carly Mercedes-Dyer (Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre, with other credits including The Lorax at The Old Vic and Memphis at the Shaftesbury Theatre), Landi Oshinowo (Big Fish at The Other Palace, Shrek and Sister Act) and Wayne Robinson (Benny in In The Heights at the Southwark Playhouse and Jagwire in Bat Out of Hell). Each actor was introduced as themselves and spoke with American accents creating a performance that combined themselves and characters that were a throwback to the performers that may have performed the songs originally.

As an ensemble the cast of five work exceptionally well together, playing off each other from song to song and interacting with the audience throughout to portray the feeling and meaning behind each song in the Fats Waller cannon. Adrian Hansel delivers a deliciously smooth vocal and exceptional dance ability throughout which is highlighted midway through Act One in group number Jitterbug Waltz, while Wayne Robinson employs expert story telling in The Vipers Drag, a real highlight of Act Two. Carly Mercedes-Dyer gave a sweet, fun performance and her comic timing was brilliant throughout and Landi Oshinowo belted up a storm in a powerful performance. Renée Lamb’s sultry, flirty performance was exceptional throughout. Lamb had the audience on side early in the show as she engaged the audience throughout not only her own numbers, but as she sang and danced back up for the other four performers. Adding character and story to each individual song, Lamb used the lyrics, choreography and staging of each number to create a performance that was a joy to watch. Brava!

takis set design saw the audience enter into a glittering gold ballroom. Reminiscent of a 1920s music hall or club, this ballroom incorporated a light up bandstand and a moving, revolving piano truck that magically moved downstage during specific numbers. This design meant the main playing space was free for Oti Mabuse’s choreography which was outstanding throughout the show. Mabuse used the space exceptionally well and created choreography that was fun, sexy and never seemed crammed in the space. Tyrone Huntley’s direction was executed with a classy subtly and saw each actor playing the song authentically with a loving reverence for the music and the Harlem Renaissance it originated from. Both Mabuse and Huntley gave exceptional debuts as choreographer and director and I’m excited to see what projects they work on in the future.

Bursting at the seems with jazzy hits, this show features an outstanding cast who take joy in performing each number, a glitzy design complimented by impressive choreography and a stellar direction. Ain’t Misbehavin’ is another magnificent production at Southwark Playhouse. Intelligent, boisterous and beautiful this show is a celebration of a pivotal moment in American musical history and I urge London audiences to see the show while you have the chance. Don’t leave it another 25 years and book to see Ain’t Misbehavin’ now!

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Pamela Raith

Buy tickets to West End theatre shows (some great discounted offers)
Subscribe to my mailing list for all the latest theatre news, special offers and competitions