"Put a Spell on You"
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 18/04/09

Commitment and enthusiasm can take you a long way. This production of Laura McCluskey's new musical drama, Nina and Shaz, is in many ways a wonderful advertisement for the play's own 'moral': that life is made worthwhile by the constant pursuit of personal dreams. It's a simple idea and not one necessarily beyond criticism, but presented here passionately, and without pretention, it's hard not to be won over.

The play parallels the career of Nina Simone with an invented contemporary East End diva, Shazne, and moves at an enjoyably swift pace between their stories. After failing in her childhood dream to become a concert pianist, Nina grows into an independently minded songwriter with a committed social vision. Shaz, growing up in the East End of London, faces a similar challenge in learning who she can trust in a world of absent fathers and escalating gang violence. Refreshingly neither singer is presented as a perfect role model; rather it's in recognising and overcoming their personal weaknesses that they impress.

Kyla Frye gives a sparky, rounded performance as Shaz, excelling in the scenes with her pushy mother (an excellent Rebecca Crankshaw). A little too winsome when acting Nina the child, Wreh-asha Walton, comes into her own in the second half of the play capturing the prickly, brilliant and ever so slightly bonkers diva in the glory of her 60's heyday. Even better though is her committed and moving singing. Just about the toughest thing you could set yourself to imitate, she fully occupies Simone's songs.

Charlene James, Nathan Clough (overcoming a shirt and hat combo that might have been nabbed from a Lilt advert) and Daniel Green all impress in their supporting roles, and as an ensemble performance this is one of the best I've seen in a long while.

It's to McCluskey's great credit that she refrains from trying to weave too tightly together the different cultures she presents. Unfortunately this occasionally gives the proceeding a slightly weightless feeling, especially during the early stages when the story of Nina Simone's childhood drags.

Nevertheless the insistence on personal responsibility and the absence of finger wagging is attractive in a play with an agenda that in less skill full hands could easily have mutated into something cloyingly earnest. Even so its pity there isn't a single redeeming male character.

Nina and Shaz is worth the effort.

You won't be disappointed.

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