How do you make a show that’s basically people whacking drums for a couple of hours interesting? Yamato managed it. Not just that, they made it hugely entertaining. Artistic Director Masa Ogawa says he’s trying to preserve the traditions of Japanese Taiko drumming while taking it in new directions. What that amounts to is transforming the art-form into something akin to a rock gig, complete with pop concert lighting and call-and-response audience engagement.
That the five male and five female musicians are supremely talented is unquestionable. The speed, dexterity and sheer stamina of their stickmanship was mightily impressive, as was their unity in the spectacular synchronised ensemble pieces. Funnily enough though, it wasn’t this that really brought the show alive; it was the individual personalities and the regular comedy skits that did the trick.
The second half in particular took full advantage of this, especially in the very funny routine where the rhythmic muse is thrown around between tiny hand-held cymbals. There are nice touches throughout the performance; the way the other drummers look constantly surprised at an individual’s virtuosity is endearing and the way they effortlessly involve the audience in en masse clapping is lots of fun. The whole time though, you remain aware of just what good musicians they are.
It’s true that The Challengers is highly commercialised and Kansai Yamamoto’s neon urban warrior costumes only just reside on the right side of acceptable. There were also some issues with clanky amplification for the duelling banjo-type instruments but on the whole this was such an enjoyable show, it didn’t really matter.
Yamato’s The Challengers runs at London’s Peacock Theatre until 25 March 2017 before embarking on a fairly extensive UK tour. See the Yamato website for tickets and more info.