by Yasmin Joseph
Directed by Rebekah Murrell as part of the Re:Emerge season
Harold Pinter Theatre – until 3 July
Part celebration, part social document, part history lesson, total triumph, Yasmin Joseph’s gorgeous piece, in Rebekah Murrell’s rambunctious production, tears up the rule book for playwriting in much the same way that Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season -of which this is the second glorious offering- changes up the rules on producing new writing in the West End. Exciting new voices given handsome productions in major playhouses…. this probably wouldn’t have happened pre-pandemic, but what a wonderful thing it is.
And what a wonderful thing J’Ouvert is: a full-throated, big-hearted, potty-mouthed bellow of joy that turns into a scream of pain before changing back again. We need more Black voices telling Black stories on major stages, and when the result is as uplifting and accomplished as this, it’s an enriching jolt of fresh blood and excitement to the art form.
Set during the Notting Hill Carnival of 2017, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, it features a live DJ (Zuyane Russell, also a tartly funny actress), an irresistible array of characters (there are only three other actresses but it feels like there are way more), a veritable flotilla of feathered costumes, enough sequins and ticker tape to choke a cart-horse, an abundance of music and dance, the spirit of the Carnival founder Claudia Jones, and some pithy, wise observations on cultural appropriation, sexual politics and embracing ones heritage.
Played out on Sandra Falase and Chloe Lamford’s rising circular set, like the bowl of a giant speaker, under an eye-catching hanging garden of Carnival-esque paraphernalia including street signs, traffic cones and yet more technicolour plumage, it’s a warm, vital collage of a script; messy yes but joyously so, as any play about something as chaotic but uplifting as Carnival has every right to be. Leading an all-female production team, director Rebekah Murrell’s masterfully nails the contrasting tones between the exhilaration and freedom of the dance (superb movement direction by Shelley Maxwell), the simmering undercurrent then explosion of violence when two frustrated young men perceive themselves disrespected, the heartwarming, superbly observed comedy of a pair of Notting Hill old timers who have seen it all, and the fantastical sequences that take place in the heroine’s head. There’s a lot going on here, and most of it is absolutely terrific.
None of this would probably coalesce without performers of the quality of Gabrielle Brooks as fierce dancing queen Nadine and Sapphire Joy as her even fiercer, politically aware sidekick Jade. Seldom off stage, working at full throttle throughout and each playing a plethora of characters -female and male- these magnetic, thrillingly talented women are shape-shifting knockouts. Annice Boparai is also a delight as well meaning, right-on Nisha, daughter of a phenomenally wealthy Spanish-Indian couple and slumming it from nearby Holland Park. Joseph’s writing is so good though that although Nisha starts out as the inevitable comic foil -her squeaky poshness forever at odds with her mates’s streetwise attitude- the character goes on a real journey into something credible and touching.
This is an ambitious work of infinite richness…. poetic, energised, essential, with wings on its feet and fire in its belly. J’Ouvert is ultimately about female friendships as much as it’s about a gigantic celebration, and it sends audiences out on a high but also with full hearts. I absolutely adored it.