tue 27/07/2021

J'Ouvert, Harold Pinter Theatre review - formless yet fabulous | reviews, news & interviews

J'Ouvert, Harold Pinter Theatre review - formless yet fabulous

J'Ouvert, Harold Pinter Theatre review - formless yet fabulous

Yasmine Joseph brings a blast of Carnival to the West End

Keeping the beat: Sapphire Joy and Gabrielle Brooks in 'J'Ouvert'Helen Murray

A welcome West End upgrade is the order of the day at J'Ouvert, the debut play from Yasmin Joseph whose 2019 premiere at South London's Theatre 503 additionally marked the directing debut of the actress Rebekah Murrell.

And now here it is, all but prompting spontaneous dance breaks throughout the (socially distanced) Harold Pinter Theatre as the second in the producer Sonia Friedman's audacious RE:EMERGE series, offering highly visible platforms to emerging playwrights: ANNA X completes the trio of commercial premieres next month. 

For now, J'Ouvert has the buoyant effect prompted by the sort of gig theatre you might find at the Royal Court (Debris Stevenson's Poet in da Corner comes to mind), alongside an irresistible engagement that fuels the audience very much from the start. If one is simultaneously aware of an occasional untidiness, and a stylistic reach too far that at times stems the emotional flow, there's no denying the cumulative impact of an interval-free play fuelled, we're told, by "anger and joy both [of which] live in your skin". Zuyane Russell in 'J'Ouvert'It's all but impossible not to feel the sheer joy in performance imparted by Gabrielle Brooks and Sapphire Joy, playing Londoners who have converged in 2017 on the Notting Hill festivities at the j'ouvert of the title, i.e. the official start of Carnival. "The music calls us like prayer," remarks Brooks's Nadine, or Nads, who longs to be the face of the fete and win a trip to St Lucia in the process. Joy's Jade, the lippier of the two, works for William Hill and doesn't suffer unwelcome approaches lightly: one of various male intruders into these feather-bedecked women's ebullient if feisty orbit gets dismissed as "a genital wart", and you're aware throughout of human contact as something these friends celebrate but also need sometimes to control. ("Carnival is community," Jade rightly says, which demands its own respect.) 

Sandra Falase's sunken bowl of a set, designed in collaboration with Chloe Lamford, makes for a de facto mosh pit, which itself dovetails well with the abiding presence of Zuyane Russell (pictured above), a DJ very much there to keep the beat. I'm not as persuaded by the third person in the defining triangle, who seems the play's resident straw man (or woman). Annice Boparai's posh Nisha exists to broaden the social spectrum and to speechify rather too much about her Holland Park background; her self-justification comes across as whining and leaves one eager to get back to the giddy interplay between her colleagues, both of whom are wonderful.

The play, intriguingly, lives on in a film version available on BBC iPlayer, but you can imagine all the while a fuller screen adaptation delivering Joseph's landscape more forcefully still. Virtuosic though Brooks and Joy are in their ability to shift genders and age as needed to inhabit the other characters (male aggressors amongst them) who come into view, a larger-scaled treatment might accommodate more readily the magical realist inclusion of "the mother of carnival", Claudia Jones; elsewhere, one welcomes the performers' fresh guise as a pair of elderly commentators on hand to lend history and heft to a comparatively freeform evening.

J'Ouvert exists in the shadow of the Grenfell disaster and on the cusp of Black Lives Matter, and the connection between these individuals and society's ongoing shape-shifting informs every moment of the piece. But Joseph and her astute director know as well as anyone when language eases off and something more primal comes into play, at which point, well, let's join the party and dance. 

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