Theatre review: Call Mr Robeson

THEATRE Call Mr Robeson Zoo Southside (Venue 82) HHHHH

Tayo Aluko in a powerful story of a great man almost forgotten

SAY the name "Paul Robeson" today, and huge numbers of people on both sides of the Atlantic no longer have any idea who you mean. Yet back in the mid-20th century, Robeson was one of the most famous men on the planet, not only the greatest singer and actor ever to emerge from black America, but a powerful campaigner for civil rights in the United States, and for the dignity of working people everywhere. The fact that he is so little remembered today is a tribute to the skill – if not the ethics – of the CIA and the FBI, who so detested Robeson for his communism, and his affection for the Soviet Union, that they sought, with some success, to destroy both his career and his reputation, and to wipe his name from the historical record.

And it's in order to help right that wrong that Tayo Aluko – who modestly describes himself as "a Nigerian baritone", rather than the deep southern bass the Robeson story requires – has created this simply-told but immensely powerful biographical study of Robeson's career, accompanied by Michael Conliffe on piano, and featuring some of the music that made Robeson famous, including his theme song, Ol' Man River. The picture of Robeson that emerges is a rich and complex one; we see not only the singer and campaigner, but the man in love with books and musicology, who was drawn into politics by the sound of hungry Welsh miners singing on a London street in the 1920s, and who believed that there were profound musical links among the songs of ordinary people, across the earth. Robeson was often flawed, and sometimes foolish. But he was also a great artist with a mighty, generous campaigning spirit; and if this show helps to restore him to our collective memory, then it will have fulfilled a fine purpose, with great grace.

Until 30 August. Today, 6:15pm