In 1931, nine black teenagers were wrongly accused of the rape of two white women on a freight train in Alabama. They were saved from a lynch mob but sentenced to death nonetheless, the subsequent years becoming a gruelling Kafkaesque maelstrom of endless appeals and thwarted retrials.
Perfect material then for an all-singing, all-dancing Broadway extravaganza? Well, actually, surprisingly, yes. This mighty musical is the swansong of Kander and Ebb, the legendary partnership behind American classics such as Cabaret and Chicago, and though the Scottsboro Boys comes late, in some ways it feels like they've saved their best til last.
This is a dazzling show that takes on challenges which would hobble lesser artists and guarantee a dry, worthy snoozefest. Not here however: the politics are resolutely personal, the righteous anger is transformed into contagious and incandescent passion, while the horror of a rigged bureaucratic process becomes an endless source of blistering tragi-comic satire. Equally, the claustrophobia of a prison cell – where much of the action takes place – is somehow turned around and expanded in a play that feels both emotionally and geographically epic.
The fact that all this is achieved with a stack of chairs and a couple of planks in Susan Stroman’s exceptional production is testimony to the sheer brilliance of the storytelling and the electrically super-charged acting. Kyle Scatliffe as Hayward Patterson is a force of nature, rising up like a skyscraper at the beginning of the play to tell us he is “free as air” before being trapped in a tin can by a corrupt justice system that is determined to see him broken.
Scatliffe leads a talented mix of American and British actors (all of them black except one token whitey), using the controversial form of the minstrel show to highlight the farcical circus that the Scottsboro Boys’ lives ended up becoming. The result is bold, subversive, hilarious and upsetting – what more could you want from a musical?
The Scottsboro Boys is on at the Young Vic until 21 December 2013. Tickets £10-£35. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.