Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020
Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain. The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong. Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her. The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway. As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head. And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.
The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey. The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange. One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.
What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.
Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah. Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.
As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall. Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.
The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed. The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect. Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling. It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.
Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told. Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on. There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live. The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.
An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.