Muted mu­si­cal with light-touch pol­i­tics

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - THE­ATRE JOHN NATHAN The Bub­bly Black Girl Sheds her Chameleon Skin The Pitch­fork Dis­ney

The­atre Royal Strat­ford East

Kris­ten Childs’s of­fBroad­way mu­si­cal of 17 years ago places the full weight of Amer­ica’s civil rights strug­gle on to the shoul­ders of a bub­bly, young, black girl grow­ing up in 1960s LA. Viveca’s blame­less am­bi­tion is to be a dancer. But no mat­ter how racially ir­rel­e­vant her dream, to be black in Amer­ica — and no doubt here, too, this UK de­but of the show im­plies — is to be im­mersed in racial pol­i­tics whether you like it or not. And for the most part, Viveca, who is haunted by the racist mur­der of four black chil­dren in an Alabama church, does not.

But none of the above cap­tures the spirit of this show. The is­sues tack­led may be se­ri­ous but Childs han­dles them with a light touch. Her in­stincts are as comedic as they are po­lit­i­cal.

The R&B and funk-in­spired score, lyrics and sto­ry­telling (she’s re­spon­si­ble for all three), which strad­dle four decades, are as much con­cerned with the ab­sur­di­ties of be­ing de­fined by colour as they are by the in­jus­tices. Much is made of the pol­i­tics of hair. Viveca’s favourite doll is a per­ox­ide blonde while, dur­ing the black-is­beau­ti­ful, anti-war protest years of the 1970s, her own flat­tened hair is al­lowed its full Afro-ex­pres­sion.

Yet the music, of­ten driven by the an in­fec­tious funky bass ris­ing from some­where deep in this gor­geous Vic­to­rian the­atre’s or­ches­tra pit, rarely gets close to the ec­stasy promised in most of the songs’ open­ing bars. Nor does Rosa Mag­giora’s cu­bist de­sign do much to evoke 1960s LA (though the pro­jec­tions do bet­ter with 1970s New York.) And al­though Josette Bushell-Mingo’s pro­duc­tion boasts some stand-out per­for­mances — not least from Karis Jack and Sophia Mackay as the younger and older Viveca re­spec­tively — the pro­duc­tion never feels as if it is of the places and pe­ri­ods it de­picts. So this show never quite wins you over as much as you want it to. Shored­itch Town­hall

Per­haps it’s best not to look for the moral or mes­sage of Philip Ri­d­ley’s 1991 play. Bet­ter to see it as a por­tal through which we ac­cess long-sup­pressed child­hood fears from which we emerge with a ghost-train pas­sen­ger’s sense of sur­vival. That, and an op­por­tu­nity for some high-octane act­ing.

This last is grasped here in Jamie Lloyd’s ad­mit­tedly ab­sorb­ing pro­duc­tion by Bafta-nom­i­nated (for

I, Daniel Blake) Hayley Squires. She plays name­sake Ha­ley, twin sis­ter to Pres­ley (Ge­orge Blag­den). They were aban­doned (or or­phaned, it’s never clear) sev­eral years ear­lier and left to their own de­vices. They have be­come scared, grown-up chil­dren who live on tran­quil­lis­ers and choco­late.

The cy­cle of bick­er­ing and make-up would be­come tire­some were it not for the ar­rest­ing im­agery gen­er­ated by Ri­d­ley’s gothic imag­i­na­tion, seen here through the prisms of Ha­ley and Pres­ley.

Pres­ley’s com­fort­ing de­scrip­tion of a nu­clear holo­caust serves as kind of salve to the scary soli­tude in which he and his sis­ter live, while Ha­ley’s night­mare of be­ing chased by hounds is re­lated by Squires with such breath­less ur­gency, the dream has the grip of a Rot­tweiler’s bite.

Equally vivid is the dan­ger­ous vis­it­ing dou­ble act: the cock­roach-swal­low­ing Cosmo (Tom Rhys Har­ries) and his PVC-clad gimp Pitch­fork. And be­cause the ac­tion is staged in this for­mer town hall’s sin­is­ter, sub­ter­ranean space known as The Ditch, the sense that your worst fears are about to be re­alised is al­ways present.

Maybe that’s the lesson. Sur­vive those and you can sur­vive any­thing.

PHOTO: SCOTT RYLANDER

Bub­bly cast at Strat­ford East

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