Swinging at the Cotton Club – Review – Hull Truck Theatre
By Karl Hornsey, June 2019
As a musical genre, swing band old-school jazz is in danger of being squeezed out on all sides. Should that ever happen it would be a great shame, but judging by the Swinging at the Cotton Club show that the audience at Hull Truck Theatre were treated to recently, there’s life in the old dog yet.
Thankfully the genre will always live on to some extent due to legendary names such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Billie Holliday, and some of those were on the playlist provided by an outstanding array of musicians, singers and dancers.
The Cotton Club was the nightclub made famous during the 1920s and ‘30s in Harlem, New York, and is recreated here by three distinct elements that complement each other superbly. Firstly there’s the Harry Strutters Hot Rhythm Orchestra, eight musicians bringing back the early years of jazz and swing to great effect, whose exuberance is matched by their outstanding ability to recreate the sounds of the time on all manner of challenging instruments. That all of them are having a wonderful time is clear from the off, never taking themselves seriously despite possessing a serious amount of talent between them.
The second piece of the jigsaw is provided by compere and singer Megs Etherington, our host for the evening, who can sing, dance and, crucially, provide the audience with a potted history of the songs and singers being featured. Wearing some rather natty attire as well, Etherington is a genial host with plenty of well-worn gags that can one can see coming a mile off, especially when he gradually introduces each of the band members throughout the evening. While he occasionally croons the odd song, most of the singing duties fall to American vocalist Marlene Hill, whose soulful voice is perfect for this type of music, often slowing down the proceedings with numbers such as ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘God Bless the Child’.
Last, but certainly not least, the most eye-catching part of the evening’s entertainment, provided throughout the show by the Lindy Hop Dance Company, who are described as the UK’s finest authentic jazz dance company. And on this evidence, I’m not going to disagree in the slightest. The lindy hop developed around the same time as the Cotton Club was becoming the place to be and is the perfect accompaniment to the music of the swing bands. The five dancers here produced so much more than that, performing all manner of dances, including, of course, the crowd-pleasing Charleston with a phenomenal degree of skill and enthusiasm that really brought the evening to life and the audience to its feet.
“Has to be seen to be believed”
The final cherry on top of the cake came in the form of renowned tap dancing exponent Lee Payne, whose soft shoe shuffle, among other numbers, was simply mesmeric. While most of the dances were of the fast-paced, tap-your-feet-in-time numbers, special mention has to be given to a piece entitled One Man, that effectively saw four of the troupe dancing as one in almost robotic fashion. One that has to be seen to be believed.
Swinging at the Cotton Club has something for everyone, not just the older generation, as some may have you believe and, while the tour now takes a break until September, it’s well worth looking out for when it heads this way again.