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Wookey Hole and Riverside Studios present


Zambezi Express



Based on the conception of Gerry Cottle


Music and Lyrics:  Saimon Mbazo Phiri


Choreography:  Thuba Gumede


Director & Choreographer: Wayne Fowkes


Assistant:  Darren Charles


Producer:  Gerry Cottle


Associate Producer:  Saimon Mbazo Phiri


Riverside Studios


4-27 September 09









ary Couzens

A review by Chad Armitstead for EXTRA! EXTRA!


If you don’t leave Zambezi Express shaking your smile out of your ears, then you might look for it in the hole where your soul’s supposed to be.   Wookey Hole Circus magnate Gerry Cottle and Siyaya have put together the self-coined ‘happiest show on Earth’ and it’s hardly an exaggeration.

Vibrant and life-affirming, Zambezi Express chronicles the journey a young man named Mzili (Makhula Moyo) from a township near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to the ‘big city’ in South Africa.  Propelled by dreams of professional football stardom, Mzili boards the only connection between Bulawayo and the rest of the world other than the televisions that pipe in football: the Zambezi Express.  Thrust into an urban world fraught with danger, Mzili risks losing everything that’s important to him to make it to the Big City Chiefs football team trials.

Cottle first saw Saimon Phiri (music and lyrics) and his company at the WOMAD (World of Music and Arts) Festival.  Inspired by Phiri and the upcoming World Cup in South Africa next year, Cottle commissioned a football-themed piece.  Phiri and his assistant, Thuba Gumede, and Siyaya (Phiri’s company) developed some of the original music and dance.  And so the show was born.  Wookey Hole Circus School’s Willie Ramsay then honed the group’s fitness to a razor point.  Finally, acclaimed choreographer Wayne Fowkes and assistant Darren Charles completed the show’s evolution into the dynamic show which has Riverside Studios’ walls straining at the seams.

Bursting into exuberant life on the first down-beat, the thirty-strong cast bring the iridescent world of Bulawayo to London through Zulu dance and singing.  The fiercely athletic troupe brings all the precision of circus and all the fervour of ritual to this infectious celebration of Zimbabwean culture and its football traditions.  From the first throbs of percussion, even the mustiest cynic can’t help but smile with the cast and clap with the drums. 



Calling Zambezi Express a musical is like calling Gordon Ramsay a cook—accurate, but it fails to quite capture the beast.  The show’s form follows African storytelling tradition more closely than it does any West End musical canon.  The first half is more dance spectacle than story.  Whether intended or not, loading the first half with atmosphere draws on an African storytelling aesthetic:  taking time to lull the audience slowly into a world before taking them on a journey through it. 

Dialogue is minimal throughout and more or less amounts to verbal gesture, grand in its scale and unconcerned with complexity.  The pared-down scenes make it possible for a London audience and every member of the family to get the gist of every moment, even if it’s not in English. 

Truly an ensemble piece, there’s a story written on the face of every member of the cast as interesting as Mzili’s.  Singling out performances that shine is like pointing out individual sequins on an evening gown.  Still, one can’t resist drawing attention to a few glinting moments.

Early on, two members of the troupe bring a lion and lioness to life in a duet.  As playful as it is palpably terrifying, you may never see anything quite as haunting.  A simple dance with men jumping in and out of barrels is one of many bits that start as lighthearted games and build to impressive physical crescendos.  Makhula Moyo’s football skills (including his impressive keepie-uppie feats) will disappoint audience members hoping to see him falter.  Sonia Mbaya has the audience giggling in the palm of her hand as the deviously playful cheerleader, showing her captain up every time she accuses the troublemaker of not knowing the routine.   After the cast’s blistering double-dutch jump-rope finale, Siphiwe Dube caps the show in effortless style, performing a feat balanced on a giant football.  It’s a curtain call that deserves its own curtain call.

As noted above, mentioning moments like these always means neglecting others.  That’s particularly true of Zambezi Express.  Like the Zulu dances and songs themselves, the show is designed to build a community out of everyone present (including the audience) and lift the individual.  So it’s worth mentioning that there really is no weak link in the toned, vibrant cast.

A review will fail to capture a show like this.  Even a theatre seems a bit small.  Cottle and Siyaya’s brainchild is like nothing else you’ll see in London.  It saturates you in the energy of true performers and reminds you why we go to the theatre.  Throw away your Prozac and turn up at Riverside Studios for the cure.  You’ll leave ecstatic to be alive, or you weren’t alive to begin with. 




4-27 September

Tickets: £15 (£12 conc.)

Box office:  020 8237 1111







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