Johannes Radebe – Freedom (Peacock Theatre, until April 2nd 2022 and touring until May 1st)
Flamboyant, fiery, fierce and fabulous – Johannes Radebe dazzles in his first solo dance tour Freedom, which is camper than a row of rainbow-striped tents and more effervescent than a thousand glitterballs.
It’s hard to think that the Strictly Come Dancing professional dancer might have been held back by the TV show that boasts more sequins and sparkles than a Mardi Gras Pride float. But as Johannes shimmers, struts and stakes his claim to every inch of the Peacock Theatre stage with bright colours and starry brilliance he makes the celebrated twinkling BBC series look like a seniors’ day trip to Broadstairs.
Freedom is a well-chosen title for a show that charts Radebe’s journey from homophobic bullying in his South African township home to becoming a Latin dance champion and breaking down barriers by performing Strictly’s first individual same-sex dance (with Graziano di Prima in 2019) and going on to an historic same-sex pairing with John Whaite in 2021, which saw the much-praised couple reach the final.
For the instantly lovable “JoJo” it is all rather overwhelming as he explains during several chats with the audience (and responds graciously to supportive shouts from fans), who he welcomes as “ladies, gentlemen and my friends beyond the binary.” In fact, he emotionally admits to the whole experience making him, “a hot mess.”
He notes that six years ago he was making his West End debut on this very stage (as part of Burn the Floor) which was to put him on the Strictly radar. While the journey hasn’t always been easy, he has deservedly won hearts and accolades along the way.
In Freedom a breath-taking range of choreographic routines, which cross tribal energy with ballroom and showtune finesse, show Radebe as a versatile powerhouse, first as delicate as a gazelle then as ferocious as a prowling big cat.
The opening Zulu war dance is breathtaking enough, with the whole cast bursting with energy and Radebe himself a firebrand in warrior costume, but the whole show relentlessly explores many different dance styles with the same excitement and freshness.
There’s a steamy, sexy and sultry set inspired by Bob Fosse and showstopping spectacle, featuring vampish versions of Too Darn Hot, Big Spender and Mein Herr, which slides seamlessly into a same sex tango with Ben Rutter that seduces and delights.
In another beautifully crafted section we are treated to some of Radebe’s Strictly highlights, including With You I’m Born Again, the waltz he performed with Caroline Quentin in 2019, a rumba, a foxtrot and the thrilling Pirates of the Caribbean paso doble danced with John Whaite in the last series.
All of this is bolstered further by set and lighting by Andrew Exeter, a township corrugated iron wall lit by shifting atmospheric colours, and extravagant costumes to suit every mood. An international flag outfit, sequinned head-dresses, fantastic feathers, shiny tuxedos and sparkling trousers are just a few of the memorable outfits by Helen Tsingos.
Radebe is supported by an incredible company of performers whose enthusiasm and energy is endless. If you saw them in their own show you would be excited and impressed. Lowri Evans is a sophisticated and accomplished partner for Radebe in many of the dances, while Anelisa Lamola stands out in her delivery of the songs.
But Radebe is such a burst of vitality that while the stage sizzles satisfyingly when the 12 other performers are on it boils over with electrifying passion when JoJo returns. This is no fault of anyone nor is it in any way detrimental to the show as a whole, but Radebe’s presence is undeniably what sets things on fire and everyone ups their game in the presence of such a master.
Freedom is an out and proud show that tells a personal story as well as touching on harsh realities faced by so many in the world, all tinged with politics, culture, tradition and humour.
As Johannes Radebe dares to dance to his own tune with such defiance and radiance he challenges every audience member to call out injustice, smash down the walls of prejudice and follow his scintillating steps to true freedom and fearless expression of our true selves.
Images: Zac Cooke