Touring – reviewed at Bristol Old Vic
A few hours before press night, on Valentine’s morning, playwright Chinonyerem Odimba tweeted out that her new play Princess & The Hustler was a love letter to her Bristol, a city she fell in love with 20 years ago. So, it’s no surprise to report that Princess feels like the best kind of Valentines; warm, comforting, a celebration. It feels like an important night in the Weston Studio, a big Bristolian story coming home to roost. You can’t help falling in love with it.
It’s April 1963 and ten-year-old Phyllis ‘Princess’ James dreams of being the Weston-Super-Mare beauty Queen. Yet with her Mum working several jobs and her budding photographer older brother refusing to even take her picture, her plans seem to have been scuppered before they begin. Then a knock on the door changes everything. In from Mersey breezes Seun Shote’s Wendell ‘The Hustler’, with his shy daughter in tow. Quicker than you can say ‘kids, meet your Dad’ he has his feet under the table and a new family unit of sorts is temporarily formed. Yet unrest at home bleeds into unrest in the streets, talk of black people boycotting the buses and teddy boys looming ominously. The stage is set for lasting change.
What’s most interesting about Odimba’s play is how old-fashioned it is. Set in 1963 you could easily imagine it being penned the same year, with its traditional two-act, one setting location and focus on character. This structure allows us to be moved by its slow-burning intensity, we come to care about each of the individual character’s journeys because we have come to know them.
Odimba crafts each beautifully. Matriarch Mavis is given powerful life by Donna Berlin, a good Christian woman, who can hush her children with a stern look but always a twinkle in her eye. When Shote’s Hustler reappears, he threatens to turn the family home on its head, with his gift of the gab, his slightly oversized suit and winning charm. It’s only later we see the pain and shame of a fundamentally good man, repeatedly kicked and held back because of the colour of his skin. As Princess, Kudzai Sitima is the most convincing adult playing child that I have seen, her animated features and bouncing energy proving the glue that holds it all together.
This play features an era still in memory for many (there were appearances in the auditorium from some directly involved in the bus boycotts) but shows the City of Bristol at its best. From a white neighbour who provides an ally through it all, to a family coming together to support unconditionally, it’s a play that taps into the vein of what this city can do best when its united not divided, as well as a salute to those ordinary people who became giants while helping produce lasting change.
Princess & The Hustler plays at Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio until 23 February and then tours.