Music and dance reflect defining periods of historical change, and the Harlem Renaissance is no exception. Tyrone Huntley’s directional debut with Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Fats Waller Musical, provides the perfect doorway to experience a slice of the ‘vibe’ during an era marked by the musical innovations taking place in 1920s Harlem, writes Carolyn Taylor.  

Not a linear story of Fats Waller’s life, but more a celebration of new freedoms brought about by social, political and cultural changes, and how those played out for African-Americans living in New York’s Harlem. Undaunted by the residual fatigue of the Civil War and WW1, the black community explored innovative ways to represent their experience, and as evidenced in Ain’t Misbehavin’, it was not through stillness!  

Movement oozes in abundance on glittering sets as spangle-clad women in feather boas and waist-coated men donning trilbys, sing and dance their way through routines, effectively enticing us into the world of Fats Waller’s smoky jazz joints, where music is buzzing and life is happening.

Seductive performances, expertly choreographed by Strickly Come Dancing’s Oti Mabuse, draw audience members into the charismatic period. Lyrics reflect issues much closer to home with, ‘save up all your pots and pans, and get some cash for your trash’ coupled with hedonistic lines of ‘I dream about a reefer 5 feet long’ and ‘Here we are at the Waldorf’. War being over, this is a time for living.         

Holding a mirror up to the Roaring Twenties, cast members replicate the era’s experimental spirit, combining sassy, sexy and ethereal numbers, with swing style dance tunes. The dance floor is a space to play out life’s highs and lows, to be playful or melodramatic, but also to unite in artistic expression.  

Liberation is felt too in the band’s slick, cool delivery of jazz numbers epitomised by Waller, notably playing ‘ ‘T Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and the hilarious, ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’. Musicians play inconspicuously while dancers captivate the audience, but they are as instrumental as the instruments, and a key ingredient in the overall ambience.    

A delightful, enthralling night’s entertainment that is well worth seeing.    

Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD until June 1st. Times: Monday – Saturday 7.30pm, Tuesday and Saturday 3pm. Admission: £27.50 (Standard), £22. Phone: 020 7407 0234.

Photos by Pamela Raith