Anger, energy, first-rate acting and a heartbreaking sweetness permeate this moving tale of injustice
Richard-Barber-176In Cabaret, they satirised the rise of the Nazis via a louche nightclub. In Chicago, murder and mayhem were lampooned via vaudeville. So, while on paper the arrest and incarceration of nine innocent black boys doesn’t sound like the stuff of musical theatre, you have reckoned without the blazing talent of Kander and Ebb.

The Scottsboro Boys was their last collaboration – Fred Ebb died in 2004 – but it wasn’t until last year that it crossed the Atlantic for a sell-out season at the Young Vic. Now it’s to be found at the Garrick for a four-month residency and it will confound any expectation you may have about what constitutes a West End musical.

On 25 March 1931, a fight broke out on a freight train bound for Memphis in America’s Deep South. Caught up in the melee, two white girls accuse the black youths of gang rape, an invention dreamt up to save their own skins. But this is racist Alabama and the boys are clapped in irons; some of them for over 40 years.

Despite one of the girls subsequently retracting her accusation, a second trial results in a guilty verdict, a miscarriage of justice to still make modern audiences weep with impotent rage. Shockingly, only in 2013, were the last of the Scottsboro Boys finally granted posthumous pardons.

A powerful story; all the more so for being true – and how do Kander and Ebb present it? As a sort of nightmarish minstrel show. All the roles, with the exception of Julian Glover’s Interlocutor, are played by American and British black actors with Mr Tambo (Forrest McClendon) and Mr Bones (Colman Domingo) acting as ghoulish masters of ceremony.

The staging, designed by Beowulf Boritt, is simple: not much more than a collection of upright chairs. Susan Stroman’s direction and fluid choreography are exemplary. And there is anger and energy and a heartbreaking sweetness to be found in all nine victims, nowhere more so than in Brandon Victor Dixon’s Haywood Patterson, nominally the leader of the pack. His rendition of You Can’t Do Me would bring a tear to a glass eye.

It’s an unforgettable, sometimes deeply uncomfortable couple of hours and, if I can’t give it the full five stars, that’s only because Chicago, and especially Cabaret, ultimately boast superior scores.

The Scottsboro Boys runs at the Garrick Theatre, 2 Charing Cross Road, London WC2 until 21 February 2015: 0844-482 9673,