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A CurtainUp London Review
There is the backdrop of cells under a microscope like an episode of House MD. Except initially he thinks he may be the virus. His verse is accompanied by the pulsing rhythms from two musicians.
In the preface, there is a debate about the arts with two people nominally called Raymond, a drama school graduate and an usher at the Young Vic, and Donna, a black actress, about whether it is legitimate to describe plays written by a black playwright and starring black actors, as "black plays".
Later we meet another similar Raymond and Donna, played by keyboard player Adrian McLeod and drummer Shiloh Coke, who have a young baby and leave voice mail messages for Arinzé criticising his writing. The exchanges between Arinzé and Raymond and Donna are amusing banter injected into a one man show but challenge his writing, in Donna's words, as "urban safari jungle shit" theatre.
Donna is particularly caustic, " Arinzé sold out and wrote a nigga play so your work would get on. Ain't nothing but a modern minstrel show." Although there is comedy here, Arinzé is also questioning and reflecting on what he has written using Donna's interjections, an equivalent of onstage heckling. It draws attention as to how black artists are labelled as he meets friend and family and producers who sway him this way and that.
The bulk of the first half of the show follows Arinzé through his part of London in a lyrical journey of complex observation and metaphor. He describes a girl called Jade with a rif on "Apparently" to describe her "complic-ated history" which is tragic.
In the first act Arinzé struggles to get into a wet suit and is pelted with water filled orange balloons which he deftly avoids but then the girl pelting him and missing, walks up to him and pours the rest of the bucket of water over him. Is this a metaphor for the idea that eventually they will get you?
I know Arinzé Kene has a magnificent singing voice from his appearance in The Girl From the North Country and here he sings with no lyrics almost a prolonged note of anguish. Much of his text is freestyled, a stream of words with drumming and keyboard accompaniment.
In the second act, we see a huge, six feet orange balloon and hear Arinzé's voice from behind it until we realise he isn't behind it at all. In a virtuoso display of physical theatre, he appears to be inside the ball, he really is, a prisoner who needs to escape. Who can forget his head emerging from the orange cocoon. It is jaw dropping theatre. Later a box opens onstage containing the author's office work area except that it has been completely taken over by orange balloons that spill out onto the stage. Arinzé battles with them, crushing them between his arm and his chest and as they burst orange powder spills. Like a piece of performance art, it is mesmerising.
The piece is episodic, the performer talented. I loved the orange balloons and the physical theatre but what I also appreciated was Arinzé's self questioning, "This is where I grew up, The other day I was on the bus, and I missed my stop, I did not recognise it. Cos these viruses have come here and gentrified it." And this is where Arinzé 's writing is special and makes me smile, "And to be fair, it does look nice, but I don't like it."
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Written and performed by Arinzé Kene
Directed by Omar Elerian
With: Shiloh Coke, Adrian McLeod, Mya Napoleon/Rene Powell
Design: Rajha Shakiry
Video Design: Daniel Denton
Sound Design: Elena Pena
Lighting Design: Jackie Shemesh
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 8743 5050
Booking to 21st April 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 24th March 2018 performance at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road London W12 8LJ (Tube: Shepherd's Bush)
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