Reviews: The Greatest Drummer in the World

Review by: Teletext

The Greatest Drummer in the World at York Theatre Royal

There is a phrase that is guaranteed to strike fear into every critic's heart, and to sear deep into the soul of any adult. "A show suitable for all the family”. The term is usually employed when the production is aimed specifically at a schools audience, and which of us can ever forget the sadly afflicted of the various Theatre In Education groups who used to tour to schools when we were nothing but knee-high to a grasshopper? Worthy and well-intentioned they may have been, but there would be a strong body of opinion who would contest that most TIE turned more kids off live performance than every turned them on to it.

There are some exceptions, and praise be ‘The Greatest Drummer in the World’ is assuredly one of them. In an audience space packed with every conceivable age group, Ensemble tell the short but compelling story of the African girl who learned to play the drums, and who was requested to leave her village because, talented though she may be, she is just too loud. Banished to the jungle, she can play to her heart's content, and manages to survive and to become more than proficient on her djembe drum. Resigned to living alone but for her music, she learns of a greedy Giant who is threatening her old home, and returns to frighten him away with her rhythmic beating. The Giant dances himself into exhaustion, and finally staggers away, never to be seen again. The villagers, unanimously grateful for their deliverance, decide that the drummer-girl can stay in the village once more – but that they will create a purpose-built hut for her that is soundly insulated – a nice compromise.

The yarn is as pure and as simple as that. But there are several strands here that are slid home with some subtlety – tolerance, for example, of the talents of others. Acceptance of people who are different. Loyalty to one's roots, and dogged persistence as well. It's a lovingly crafted and very engaging show which relies on the talents of three performers – Leon Rosselson, who wrote the original story and who sings four of the production's songs, Elizabeth Mansfield, who adapted the story for the stage, directs it and who narrates, and the astonishing Anna Mudeka.

I say "astonishing" with some feeling, because Ms. Mudeka plays the young drummer, and demonstrates a truly awesome ability on her chosen instrument, making it sing, whisper, shout and pound. Watch those hands, arms and wrists move, and prepare to be amazed. She has an incredible talent, and one which leaves a goodly section of the audience slack-jawed in admiration. It's also true to say that the youngsters were, almost all of them, swaying and moving along, with expressions of delight on their faces.

Ms. Mansfield is also a very skilled performer who is adept at involving the audience without talking down to them – she asks for ideas and suggestions at various points in the action, and the kids deliver answers that have been clearly mulled over. At one point, Mansfield asked: "well, what do YOU think she should do, return, or stay in the jungle?", and a wee voice replied "I think she should follow her heart", which is about as sensible a nugget of advice that you'd get from someone in their forties, never mind a little girl of eight years old!

You really can't fault this compact, stylish and thoughtful production, which nips along at a fair old pace, requires the audience to use their imaginations to create the own images of what, say, the Giant should look like, and which never flags in energy or application. There is, for those who wish to stay on (and I recommend that you do) a workshop in creative music-making at the end of the show, and how the kids loved that bit!

The Djembe hand drum really does seem to have magical properties when it is played by someone with skill and a passion for the instrument, and Anna Mudeka's sheer delight in drumming up a storm is evident on her face. She is passionate about her music, and that passion floods across the stage. It's a compulsion that is shared in turn by her audience, and if this little production doesn't start a few youngsters on a lifetimes' love of music and rhythm, then, well, there just ain't no justice in this world. Completely mesmeric and delivered with feeling – you couldn't ask for more.

Phil Penfold

Review by: The Stage

The Greatest Drummer in the World at York Theatre Royal

This is a magical performance piece. Even before the show begins, drummer Anna Mudeka is keen to converse with people as they make their way to their seats and put younger audience members at ease. Elizabeth Mansfield, who narrates the tale, is equally welcoming, offering hellos to everyone filing into the compact Studio.

With the barriers between audience and performers broken down, Mudeka, Mansfield and Leon Rosselson quickly get into their stride, weaving the interesting tale of a drummer who is banned from her village because fellow residents cannot cope with the noise. She is quickly allowed back, however, when a giant – conjured up by Nao Nagai’s lighting – threatens the neighbourhood. What better way to get rid of him than playing a djembe rhythm?

This is a very interactive show. Audience members are encouraged to come up with ideas about where the plot might be heading, they are coaxed into clapping out the rhythms and, when the piece ends, a question and answer session begins.

Aimed at a younger audience, educational elements are also high. This is a great way of learning about Africa’s culture of music and percussion and Mudeka is keen to reveal all about her Zimbabwean upbringing.

The final participatory African version of Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes is great fun and ensures that the show ends on an uplifting note.

Dave Windass

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