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J’Ouvert at the Harold Pinter Theatre | Review

There’s some artistic licence going on in J’Ouvert, which seems to want to walk a tightrope between drawing in people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to West End theatre performances, and those who, well, would: there’s music, there’s dancing, and the show is set at the Notting Hill Carnival. But it’s not quite the same thing – I’ve been up to the Carnival to see what the fuss was about, and while the costumes here are as colourful and vibrant as they are at the real thing, the music is mostly if not entirely listened to with one’s chest, such is the sheer volume of the bass.

J'Ouvert - Gabrielle Brooks (Nadine). Photo by Helen Murray.
J’Ouvert – Gabrielle Brooks (Nadine). Photo by Helen Murray.

The frivolity of the dance routine which Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) – or Nads to her friends – has perfected was appreciated by large sections of the press night audience. Theatre regulars are, however, likely to find all that energy and movement, somewhat ironically, tantamount to a slow start – not much else goes on, plot-wise. But creating a party atmosphere seems to be a way of warmly inviting people into the world of Nads, Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nisha (Annice Boparai), and once people are sufficiently loosened up, the story proper can begin.

Nisha is one of those self-spoken eager beavers with a public school background who sees her Carnival experience as a way of broadening her horizons and engaging with her local community. Evidently, nobody told her that such are the sheer numbers attending Carnival that they can’t possibly be all locals. Indeed, Nads’ and Jade’s encounters with some of the locals are strongly indicative that Carnival isn’t exactly appreciated by everyone.

The Carnival has a reputation for attracting some pockets of undesirable behaviour – when the young ladies have no choice but to engage in a flight or fight response, it felt to me that they did what they had to do in a rapidly changing situation. Brooks and Joy also take on various characters along the way, including several from the older generations: a scene in which two Caribbean gentlemen are sat in deck chairs selling drinks and Carnival whistles was insightful and hilarious in equal measure.

A speech of any description at the Carnival seems implausible, and even puts the production at risk of coming across as preachy, but – suspension of disbelief at the theatre doors and all that – there’s something about speaking truth to power that galvanises the audience, which assumes the role of Carnival attendees. The DJ (Zuyane Russell) is suitably buoyant and enthusiastic, and I couldn’t help thinking this is the sort of show that should really be seen on a Saturday night rather than a Monday night.

There’s confidence abound, but as a couple of later scenes demonstrate, vulnerability creeps in too, and the central characters are presented as fully human. Quite a few pertinent themes are explored in this one-act production, highly relevant to the issues women of colour are grappling with in contemporary society. Interestingly, an older character tells a younger one that they (the older generation) have done all the hard work in terms of striving for equality, recognition and respect, so all the youngsters need to do is enjoy themselves. But, as this story demonstrates, the fight goes on.

There are, partly thanks to some hard truths told very matter-of-factly, some laugh-out-loud moments in this bold and thoughtful show. For all the noise and hustle and bustle, one of the most powerful moments in the show is a moment of stillness and silence, given in honour of the lives lost in the Grenfell Tower fire (an actual Carnival event that takes place at 3:00pm). The full range of human emotion is on display in this hard-hitting and feisty production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert is the second in SFP’s RE:EMERGE season, which began with Amy Berryman’s Walden, and concludes with Joseph Charlton’s Anna X. The press release for the season is attached. Following performances at the Harold Pinter Theatre, J’Ouvert will run for 5 performances only at Theatre Royal and Royal Concert Hall Nottingham from 21 to 24 July.

A new play by Yasmin Joseph
16 June – 3 July
Press performances: 21, 22, 23, 24 June – all at 7.30pm

Cast: Annice Boparai, Gabrielle Brooks, Sapphire Joy, Zuyane Russell
Directed by Rebekah Murrell
Designed by Sandra Falase in collaboration with Chloe Lamford; Movement by Shelley Maxwell; Lighting Design by Simisola Majekodunmi; Sound Design by Beth Duke; Casting by Isabella Odoffin


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