In 1931, nine black teenage boys hopped aboard a freight train to look for work. But instead of finding jobs, they ended up in jail – with a death sentence hanging over the heads of all but the youngest, a 13-year-old who had hitched a ride along with his older brother.

An accusation of rape made by two young white Alabaman women led to their arrest at Scottsboro and the beginning of a long sequence of miscarriages of justice. Not, on the face of it, promising material for a critically acclaimed Broadway musical. But long-term collaborators Kander and the late Ebb (the duo behind Cabaret and Chicago) have cleverly taken the convention of the minstrel show and turned it on its head to create a powerful, fast-paced, often grimly funny production which doesn’t let you forget the prejudice and racism which involved death threats and a lengthy series of retrials – even after one of the women withdrew her allegation.

Director and choreographer Susan Stroman keeps the energy levels high on Beowolf Boritt’s set which uses simple wooden chairs to evoke a train or the various prison cells which hold the youths incarcerated year after year for a non-existent crime.

James T Lane delivers a cheeky comic turn as the retracting accuser Ruby Bates (as well as playing one of the boys), Julian Glover’s Interlocutor (the only white member of the cast) oversees the “entertainment” with a gleeful jollity, whist vaudevillian Mr Tambo and Mr Bones (Forest McClendon and Colman Doming, both from the original Broadway production) deliver heavily caricatured versions of the various white officials. And Kyle Scatliffe brings dignity, pathos and frustrated anger to the role of Haywood Patterson, the most defiant of the unjustly treated defendants whose main crime was simply the colour of their skin.

£10+. until December 21st

Young Vic, The Cut, SE1 8LZ

Tube | Southwark / Waterloo

0207 922 2922