Saturday, 11 February 2017

Bubbly black girl

Ooh, she's cold! It's been snowing half-heartedly through much of the day, in an irritating "get your act together" sort of non-settling way. We haven't really had snow this year. In fact, I don't think we've had proper snow in London for some years. I live in hope. I love snow. What I don't love is this wet, cold, mizzley nonsense.

I took the overground to Stratford this evening. I always forget that the North London line exists. It goes to Gospel Oak, which is right next to our gym, so I don't know why I don't kill two birds with one stone more regularly. That said, Stratford is a supremely horrible place. The Westfield Shopping centre looms over the place like a shiny concrete carbuncle, and everywhere you turn there are gangs of youths or gaggles of policemen with sniffer dogs. It's very rare for me to feel uncomfortable walking on the streets of London, but I'm always on edge in those parts. Maybe it's lack of familiarity, but you don't get many riot police in Highgate!

I sat in the charming "Gerry's Bar and Kitchen" in front of Stratford East Theatre Royal. The bar, I assume, is named after luminary Gerry Raffles, who is as synonymous with the theatre as the incomparable Joan Littlewood. I had a halloumi wrap for my tea which has to be one of the most disgusting things I've ever eaten. The wrap had lettuce, cucumber, tomato and halloumi in it. Nothing else. No hummus. Nothing to melt and make everything deliciously gooey. But it had been heated up to the extent that the lettuce and cucumber were like magma. There is something hugely disconcerting about eating boiling hot cucumber and to make matters worse, the halloumi was undercooked and dry. It was just awful but I was too shy to take it back so doused it in vinegar and tried to pretend it wasn't happening!

My co-conspirator for the evening was the lovely Rosie from Brass, who was the perfect companion. It was her first trip to the theatre, so it was an honour to be able to point out some of the photos of previous iconic shows which had started their lives there. There's a shot from Fings Aint What They Used to Be of a young Barbara Windsor sitting on the floor of the stage, taken through the fish-net-stockinged legs of another actress, probably Avis Bunnage or Toni Palmer. It's just such a stunning picture.

I was at the theatre watching a new musical called The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Skin. It's an American show, and I'm afraid it has very little merit. Broadly speaking, the piece tells the story of a young black girl growing up in California, who takes herself off to New York to seek fame and fortune, but, in the process, discovers herself. The first scenes take place in the early '60s and the show follows the character all the way through to 1990.

My big issue, I suppose, was that I didn't know what the show was trying to tell me. It wasn't funny enough to be as lightweight as it seemed, and I didn't end up with any great insight about how it must have felt to be black, American and a woman in any of the decades covered. Any promise the first half had in this respect was utterly destroyed in the second act by what can only be described as silliness. The 60s, 70s and 80s were some of the most iconic and well-defined decades of the 20th Century and the show entirely lacked atmosphere and authenticity, which felt like a massively missed opportunity.

It was poorly researched: we had flower-power protest scenes in 1971 instead of 1968, and a sequence set in 1982 had lyrics about what a wonderful dancer Patrick Swayze was (a full five years before Dirty Dancing was released.)

Song after song swept past on a tide of mediocrity. None of them advanced the plot. Most of them were fairly tuneless and dramatically unsatisfying. Nearly all of them felt like they'd been written before the plot was discovered, so there was a sense of everything standing still whilst we heard, for example, the song about how one guy's grandmother (apparently with terrible vocal health issues) taught him not to respect women, or the song about 1960s peace protests which didn't tell me anything new about Vietnam. All felt generic and impressionistic. I could have written them without doing any extra research about the era and locations.

The show wasn't helped by a change of actor playing the lead role just before the interval. If I'm honest, the two actors looked about the same age. In fact, the girl who ended up playing the central role had played the central role's best friends in the sequences set during their childhood, so the decision to swap actors and then have the original girl wafting about in a gingham school uniform at the back of the stage, felt even more surreal.

There was a moment when the audience came alive because one of the actors was goofing about doing very well-observed 1980s sleazy Lothario dancing. It was really well executed, but the fact that the audience responded better to this than anything else in the show, told me all I needed to know about the all-round poor quality of the writing. As I stood in the foyer afterwards, this particular dancing was the only subject of conversation amongst the audience leaving.

The end number is all about the central character basically saying "f**k you, I am who I am" in a dance audition reminiscent of, but nothing like as good as A Chorus Line. The medium chosen to portray this key plot moment was obviously dance, but what should have been desperately exciting and virtuosic was really just a little bit underwhelming.

If this were an English new musical I wouldn't be anything like as tough on it. Actually if Stratford had commissioned a show about the British black community in those decades, I think they might have had something exciting on their hands. There are tremendous black British writers who could have delivered something spine-tingling and informative. I furthermore hate the fact that something which was essentially substandard was farmed from over the pond, largely because I know there are countless brilliant American shows which have yet to be seen over here. It just wasn't good enough, and I left feeling bitterly disappointed.

No comments:

Post a Comment