A fortnight ago I watched and reviewed a play called Cruise which was attempting to dodge the will they won’t they bullet of the theatres reopening by producing both a filmed online version while still rehearsing for a live debut some weeks later. This seems to have started a trend as now here comes another taking the same route. Yasmin Joseph’s play J’Ouvert is part of Sonia Friedman’s ReEmerge programme planned for the Harold Pinter Theatre. Before that though, it has been filmed at the same venue and released as part of the BBC’s Lights Up festival. The piece actually began life at the Theatre 503 in Battersea back in 2018 so has done remarkably well to land itself slots on both national television and in the West End.
The title – literally “I open” – refers to the traditional name for the first day of the Caribbean carnival and this play examines the British version of that event as held in Notting Hill every year (well, most years when there isn’t a pandemic around). Specifically, it is the year 2017 just weeks after the Grenfell tragedy which was on the carnival’s doorstep and following a year in which several stabbings had taken place. So, there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the celebration which first took place in 1959 in the wake of another unsavoury set of circumstances – the Notting Hill race riots. The founding mother of the event, Claudia Jones, is still present in the play’s structure; she appears as a ghostly figure to one of three young women attending and participating in the 2017 street party.
This is Nadine/Nads keen to be the public face of the event and win the competition which will take her to St Lucia. She has practised her dance moves until she could do them in her sleep but despite this her soul is troubled – hence the appearance of and advice from Jones. It’s a slightly strange device which I wasn’t convinced works. While it gives rise to some lyrical writing and delivery it doesn’t particularly advance the plot and seems at odds with the more earthy tone of the rest of the play.
Thematically it is on firmer ground as the piece examines the carnival past as well as present. Also bolstering Nadine’s confidence is her best friend Jade who has her own worries to contend with. She is going to display her latent talents publicly by making a speech on behalf of her action group West London Rising. The two young women who have a long history of comradeship effectively complement each other and help each other towards achieving their desired goals but not before misunderstandings and a near falling out have occurred.
Much of this is fostered by a third young woman, Nisha who seems somewhat of an interloper into the carnival atmosphere compared to the other two. An overenthusiastic activist for a cause which many might say is not even hers, Nisha lives in much classier Holland Park and comes across as a virtue signaller. This third character acts as a wedge between the friendship of the other two and indeed between the old carnival traditions and its more modern iteration with overpriced food stalls and souvenir sellers.
The actors playing the three key roles Gabrielle Brooks (Nadine), Sapphire Joy (Jade) and Annice Bopari (Nisha) are real rushes of energy and bring an urgency to their playing which helps to recreate the frenetic feel of carnival. Joy, in particular, totally convinces and is clearly someone to watch; her impassioned delivery of her speech towards the end of the play helps to mask some of the triteness in the writing. She also satisfies as the spirit of Jones and as one half of an old timer double act with Brooks when they morph into Charles and Hubert two veterans of Notting Hill who sit and reminisce about the things they have seen over the years and the changes that have been made – they are not, however, averse to making a quick buck from flogging flags and whistles to the crowds.
There is actually a fourth performer Zuyane Russell who acts as a live DJ rallying the crowd and providing the all pervasive soca music. There is little character depth here – but then there isn’t meant to be. The set is symbolically suggestive of carnival rather than an attempt to recreate Notting Hill itself and, as the play is multi location within that area of West London, this works well enough; a revolving central section with a steep rake adds fluidity to the movement but must be exhausting to work on. The costumes are the expected concoction of bold colours, sequins and feathers which add vibrancy and a dash of other worldliness to proceedings. The piece is directed with verve by Rebekah Murrell and should do well when it opens on stage in mid-June (further setbacks permitting). As Nadine says in the closing moments (half to herself and half to us) “Keep the spirit alive” – amen to that.