Anansi Trades Places @ Shaw Theatre, London

The legends of Anansi, the man-spider – the trickster and folk hero – are rich with dramatic potential.

Something that Trish Cooke’s entertaning new play takes full advantage of. When Anansi (Geoff Aymer) arrives in London, he finds a world full of iPods, the internet and Nintendo Wiis. It means that his stories are being forgotten, and as a result, he will have to fade away – but he is ready to fight against that particular downfall. By becoming a real boy.

In her main character, Cooke has created a perfect eleven-year-old: obnoxious, fired up, angst-ridden and aggressive a real brat. The urban dialogue she employs focuses a warm light on the experiences of all families: troubles between husbands and wives, adolescents rites of passage, the mire of sexuality and aging.

In the play, young Omari (Shyko Amos) is tempted into Storyworld (Anansi must keep him there until sunrise in order to become a real boy forever). Here he encounters all sorts of exotic animal folk and learns some valuable lessons.

With Delroy Murray, her musical collaborator, Cooke presents a heady mix of song styles from reggae, ska and calypso to grime, garage and rap; soul and gospel. Lyrically they are narrative-led and catchy enough you will naturally find yourself singing along. The songs Innit Though, Rougher Than Rough and Do as I Do, reflect upon universal issues ideas of ambition, frustrated independence and hope.

Most are accompanied by simple dance steps, which aren’t altogether underwhelming but could be more engaging and dynamic. It is also refreshing to hear truly wonderful vocal performances on the stage, the best of which come from Amos, and also from Susan Lawson-Reynolds and Malinda Parris. Geoff Aymer is the weakest link but even he doesn’t disappoint and his style is still a cut above the usual stage school warbling.

The space and the, presumably small, budget have been used carefully but bravely. The set is minimal and it relies on clever lighting to set the mood. There are some weak spots, such as the toy spider which makes one rather shaky and feeble appearance but this is easily overlooked. Most remarkable are the vibrant costumes of the characters, from tiger-orange hair extensions to chicken-leg-yellow tights. But although the titular character’s dreadlocks, acting as spider legs, are suitably repellent, Anansi’s design could have been more effective.

Ultimately this show is a great piece of family entertainment, something that adults really can enjoy too. It brings back memories of being told Aesop’s fables as a kid. Talawa Theatre Company’s premiere Christmas show is an achievement that stands on its own. When the music and culture is so flagrantly rich it is a surprise and a shame that more productions haven’t taken advantage of the Anansi myths this is an enjoyable update of the stories and a superb alternative to the tired panto circuit.

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