Muted musical with light-touch politics
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.
Bubbly cast at Stratford East