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The Lonely Londoners at Jermyn Street Theatre | Review

The compact intimacy of the studio theatre in Beau Brummell’s fashionable Jermyn Street makes for a poignant setting for The Lonely Londoners. Sam Selvon’s iconic novel written in 1956 is a piece about the crabbed, confined, and claustrophobic lives lived by those much mythologised Windrush migrants in 1950s London. The novel was a breakthrough moment in post-war writing from a black Caribbean perspective. It’s not as well known as it ought to be and so this new imagining of the novel is to be welcomed. The adaptor Roy Williams (Baby Father, Death of England) and director Ebenezer Bamgboye have created a wonderfully captivating interpretation of Selvon’s much-loved novel. At one level it’s a simple story of migrant folk arriving in London and finding life hard. But Selvon is a writer who hides his art under a bushel. Williams and Bamgboye aim to show art as well as realism. They do so triumphantly.

Tobi Bakare, Gilbert Kyem Jnr, Gamba Cole in The Lonely Londoners at Jermyn Street Theatre, photo by Alex Brenner.
Tobi Bakare, Gilbert Kyem Jnr, Gamba Cole in The Lonely Londoners at Jermyn Street Theatre, photo by Alex Brenner.

The art is everywhere in this play. The play’s central character is Moses (the superb Gamba Cole). He leads his people (Desmond Dekker’s Israelites) into the promised land, the Bayswater Road. He envisages The Lonely Londoners as Arthurian Knights of the Round Table hence the sobriquet Galahad he gives to the latest arrival off the boat Henry Oliver – surely a deliberate referencing of both the royal line of Henry’s and Oliver Cromwell? London’s size is personified by Gilbert Kyem jnr, Big City. These migrants to the Mother Country are steeped in the bible, the classics, and English history which only makes their rejection at the hands of their white English hosts all the more bitter, crushingly humiliating and tragic.

The play is a tragi-comedy. The comedy is well done. Big City’s repeated malapropisms, Notting Well Fence, Ladbroke Grave, Gloucestershire Street are amusing if somewhat reminiscent of ITV’s Mind Your Language. And the shenanigans with the pigeons mean you will never look upon the pigeons in Trafalgar Square in quite the same way again. But tragedy is the dominant emotion and rightly so, it’s a grim story in a cold and hostile world. In addition to the well-documented and by now well-known problems The Lonely Londoners faced – bad housing, dirty jobs, low pay, violent Teddy Boys – the play brings out the less well-known challenges. The most harrowing for me was the psychological strain that migration entailed. This is shown as Lewis (Tobi Bakere) descends into paranoia and Othello-like jealousy towards his long-suffering wife Agnes (Shannon Hayes). And in the most haunting scene of the play when Galahad inverts Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is a man” speech, he forces us to reflect on the facticity of skin pigmentation.

Thrillingly The Lonely Londoners shifts gear and like the ballet sequence in The Red Shoes (1948) it brings us, as it were, Ballet Black in the Bayswater Road. Not only is the visual spectacle absolutely stunning but more importantly the social meaning is clear for all who care to look. We end with renunciation, renewal and rebirth.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

London, 1956. Newly arrived from Trinidad, Henry ‘Sir Galahad’ Oliver is impatient to start his new life in London. Carrying just pyjamas and a toothbrush, he bursts through Moses Aloetta’s door only to find Moses and his friends already soured on city life. Will the London fog dampen Galahad’s dreams? Or will these Lonely Londoners make a home in a city that sees them as a threat?

Tobi Bakare – LEWIS
Gamba Cole – MOSES
Shannon Hayes – AGNES
Gilbert Kyem Jnr – BIG CITY
Carol Moses – TANTY
Aimee Powell – CHRISTINA
Romario Simpson – GALAHAD

The Lonely Londoners

29 FEBRUARY – 6 APRIL 2024


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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