Review: Harlem Globetrotters, The Hydro

Our verdict: Three-and-a-half stars

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Those who already know the premise of the Harlem Globetrotters, please skip to the next paragraph. Those who do not (including me, before tonight), a brief summary: basketball meets comedy meets performance. That's pretty much all there is to it.

You have to see it to believe it. Two basketball teams 'battle it out' (it isn't really a battle when it doesn't matter who wins) on a 'court' (a bastardised version of where the seating area usually is) with an amplified running commentary from both the umpire and players, with an added dash of audience participation.

Two things. Firstly: only around two thirds of the tickets have sold, leaving yawns in the audience where people should be. The Hydro has attempted to cover this up by erecting large dark curtains shielding some of the seats in the house that are left inexplicably empty - the closest ones to the stage in the galleries with what would probably be an ideal vantage point.

Tonight, Matthew, the Hydro has come as Nigella Lawson: with a plethora of fabric artfully draped over the best bits. It isn't kidding anyone with what is - or is not - under there: the atmosphere is dull, the acoustics are muffled and fail to carry sufficiently.

We spend much of the first half straining to make out the commentary but also struggling to keep up - the court is a large area and with the players boomeranging from side to side, it can feel a little disorientating - especially with the full glare of the lights on. At first the tricks feel boring: my guest tells me she could do these tricks: a little slam-dunking here, a ten-second ball twirl there. She couldn't, but I know what she means. It is slow.

And secondly: something sort of miraculous happens in the second half, prompted by something else slightly before. Just before the interval, one of the show's mascots appears - Big G, with an inflatable globe for a head - who proceeds to throw himself around the court, tripping up with reckless abandon to a dubious soundtrack for the sheer joy of being amusing to the kids in the crowd.

Please believe me when I say that I don't ordinarily reserve accolade for baw-heided sporting mascots face-planting to Chumbawumba. But it encapsulates the basic quality of the comedy: throwing things in people's faces; gyrating behind authority figures when their backs are turned.

It sounds banal and juvenile but in fact it's well-executed, and it's infectious when you see rows of children incandescent with laughter around you.

After that, it's a home straight. The second half is almost completely dictated by the kids in the crowd. The players' interaction with the children they invite on-stage is spontaneous and sweet - they give one lad dozens of tries under an audience's watchful glare to score a slam dunk with them, so that, presumably, he could have that success to remember the experience by.

It would be too easy to let him go back to his seat after one failed attempt, give him a T-shirt and a clap on the back and allow themselves more airtime. Instead, the Globetrotters encourage him in every way they can until, some twenty, thirty shots later, he nets the ball.

'Coached by the Harlem Globetrotters'? Maybe not quite as far as that. But at the very least, in my book, it beats a giant foam hand and a nylon merchandise pullover to take away from the night.

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