It is always a privilege to be asked to review a performance of any play. When I accepted the invitation to review Amandla! at The Leatherhead Theatre on the evening of Dec 3rd (World Disability Day), I had no idea just how great a privilege it was.

This was an astounding tour de force. The Mandela story is one of the greatest stories of triumph over adversity of our time. In parallel this evening, we saw dedicated young actors and their team of tutors crush the perceived adversity of disability to a pulp, by the talent, determination and commitment of the whole team who created this wonderful piece of theatre.

This was tight and committed ensemble playing. Between them the team demonstrated several simple and contemporary theatrical devices which gave particular punch to the story. The seated ‘chorus’ and solo cast members on each side of the stage, the use of minimal props, such as the long poles to define division and direction, the ribbon ‘blood’, the back projection and the use of real life film all helped to enrich the experience for those playing and those watching.

I feel a little uncomfortable in commenting on individual performance, because everyone’s contribution was vital to the success of the piece. However, convention dictates that I should pinpoint playing of particular excellence, but where to start?

The scene was set and then on came Krune (Brandon McGuire) a stark, lonely, impressive figure who, with beautifully clear voice, went on with the narrator, (Sam Keelan) to lead us through the story. The three Mandelas had giant responsibilities in every sense. The Spirit Mandela (Richard Watson) gave a lovely and focused reading of the energy of the man’s inner vibrance, while the performance by Ashley Phillips as the Young Mandela expressed the agility and clarity of mind, the commitment and utter bravery of the man. This brings us to the Older Mandela. This was a particularly moving performance by Terri Winchester who managed to express both the personal struggle and absolute dignity of our hero. All three together created the Mandela the world came to know and love.

Winnie Mandela and Mother Mandela showed us the real suffering of women in general in the South Africa of the time and the suffering of the black women in particular. Winnie (Ems Dooley) conveyed through her own considerable difficulties, a really poignant and memorable character. She encapsulated the unimaginable trials and struggles of Winnie and her kind. There was an almost palpable sense of achievement and triumph in the way Winnie was presented.

Steve Biko (Sonas Musana) Donald and Wendy Woods (Daniel Galliford and Rachel Mold) created really well drawn, thoughtful characters, all of whom were towering personalities in the real story. They were no less towering in this performance of the story. Wonderful communication of the very essence of these people who were vital in the whole movement to free South Africa from the monster of white domination.

I have deliberately left mention of Fr Trevor Huddleston played by Luke Tye until almost the last thing because he had a very particular role in the story. Unlike most of the other characters, he was not South African born and bred but he embraced Africa with all his soul and had the temerity to question churches and governments about their attitude to black people. He was a towering figure in the evolution of the new South Africa. Luke was no less towering. He gave us a dignified thoughtful, intelligent and above all compassionate reading of Huddleston and it was fitting that Luke’s rendition of the song at the end brought the show to a storming close. A lovely singing voice and a really sincere interpretation.

I have left the mention of the film interludes of Gabrielle Thorpe until late in my review because its power was indescribable to a first time watcher. The simplicity of the theatrical device used was surpassed only by the stark simplicity and anguish of her story. It was a real privilege to hear directly from someone who had been deeply involved and who was actually here in the theatre among us. It was an almost intoxicating experience to those of us watching the play, but above all to those of us who had lived through the long years here in Britain. I remember as a young woman being entirely at a loss to believe that such iniquity and horror existed. Thank you for that very uplifting and inspiring input, Gabrielle.

I wish I could give as detailed a comment on each of the other players, but I would be unable to identify them all accurately. However, this was a team effort and that came across VERY strongly. Each individual was totally engaged, involved in both choral speech, small individual parts, dancing and movement. The sight of ‘dancing’ wheelchairs will live long in my memory. What skill, what wonder that people can, through new technology, be given the freedom of movement that the rest of us take for granted. Fabulous.

Simplicity in all things seemed to be the ethos of this production and it was hugely effective. The representational costume, the symbolic use of props all combined to give a really convincing and enjoyable evening of theatre. If I have a small criticism, it is that the lighting was sometimes a little dim. I would like to have seen the faces of the actors a little more clearly. I sometimes found myself struggling to decide whether there was an off stage voice or an onstage actor speaking. The end colour effects, however, were very lovely and conveyed the colourful society that South Africa is now developing

The musicians too were wonderful. Having lived for a short time in West Africa, I particularly enjoyed all the drumming. There is nothing to compare with the magic of hearing the drums across the ‘bush’ in the darkness of the African night. Here it was, in Leatherhead!!

What else to say except that Chris Haydon and his production team are to be heartily congratulated on this innovative and magnificent piece of theatre. It has all taken a huge amount of work on the part of everyone, but I for one, and I cannot be alone, hope that you will continue with the work and let us share it from time to time.

Two others I have not mentioned at all are the BSL Interpreter Marion Quemby who with the surtitler Bob Colvill worked tirelessly through the performance to ensure that this was a truly inclusive piece of theatre.

The final choral piece with it shouts of ‘Freedom’ and ‘Amandla!’ brought the audience to its feet. It was a tremendously moving experience and I had difficulty in seeing my way clearly out of the theatre. I was suffering from what the Victorians might have described as ‘moist eyes’.

Thank you all for one of the most exciting theatrical experiences I have had for a long time.