Johannes Radebe: Freedom Unleashed, Edinburgh Festival Theatre ****
“I look ridiculous – but I love it!” So says Johannes Radebe, standing centre stage in a tight-fitting, sequin-encrusted, golden unitard and face mask. He doesn’t, of course. He looks fabulous, theatrical, empowered and like somebody who is absolutely living their best life.
This is just one of many outfits in a show whose mantra appears to be “it’s never too soon for another costume change.” Surrounded by ten multi-discipline dancers and two vocalists, Radebe is flanked by skill and talent, yet still shines like the brightest star in the firmament. Charting his journey from South African township to primetime TV, Freedom Unleashed is a quietly political celebration of love and acceptance, wrapped up in glitz and glamour.
After a first half devoted to Radebe’s childhood, where he hid that vibrant light under a bushel to avoid playground bullies, the second half is a smorgasbord like no other. We bounce from traditional African dance to sensual reggaeton, sharp Latin to smooth ballroom, funky jazz to quick-smart commercial – with each sequence dressed to the nines. If there’s a wish here, it’s that somebody would write Radebe a blank cheque to pay for a live band and more elaborate set, both of which he deserves.
But it’s a small gripe, and just when you think this show has reached its peak, the feathered headdresses get bigger, the heels get higher and the audience gets to its feet. Iconic songs from popular music and musical theatre rub shoulders, with Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Abba passing the baton to Grease and The Lion King. A beautiful male waltz echoes Radebe’s partnering with John Whaite on Strictly Come Dancing. But perhaps the most poignant moment comes when this once cowering schoolboy glides across the stage in glittery trousers to If My Friends Could See Me Now.