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BWW Review: J'OUVERT, Harold Pinter Theatre

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Yasmin Joseph’s spirited debut play dives into the annual Notting Hill Carnival.

BWW Review: J'OUVERT, Harold Pinter Theatre

BWW Review: J'OUVERT, Harold Pinter Theatre We have been to space; now it's party time. Following Amy Berryman's Walden, Sonia Friedman Productions' RE:EMERGE season continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre with Yasmin Joseph's J'Ouvert. Set in the annual Notting Hill Carnival in 2017, Joseph's spirited debut play was first produced in 2019 at Theatre503, in a staging that also marked the directorial debut of actor Rebekah Murrell. In the play's West End outing, Murrell is once again at the helm, and the result is a joyous, plucky work that thrusts us into a communal tradition as experienced by three young women of colour.

Sequins, feathers, and glitter are among the few elements that populate Sandra Falase and Chloe Lamford's spare set design, which is centred by a revolving platform and overhanging icons of the carnival. One of the signature gestures of Murrell's production is to treat this empty space as though it were the bustling, overcrowded streets of Notting Hill on the day of the carnival. Simisola Majekodunmi's pulsating lights and Beth Duke's eclectic sounds, incorporating key tunes from the carnival culture, prove essential to the bare-bones evocation of the play's setting.

They also greatly animate the stage action, as Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) and Jade (Sapphire Joy) find themselves captivated by the irresistible beats of their surroundings. The two friends are rightly excited about the day ahead: Nadine hopes to win an all-expenses-paid trip to St Lucia with her much-rehearsed dance routine, and Jade is expected to deliver a rousing speech as part of her work with an activist group called West London Rising. As they drunkenly and hungrily stumble their way through the frenetic day, their paths cross with that of their friend Nisha (Annice Boparai), whose overenthusiasm about the carnival increasingly irritates Nadine.

The girls' adventures include several encounters with two boys whose flirtations become dangerously disturbing - and, in Nadine's case, summoning the ghosts of "carnival women" from the past, including Claudia Jones, the first organiser of the event in 1959. They wait in long queues for food, witness eruptions of violence, and, of course, dance a lot. Throughout, Brooks and Joy embody a range of characters besides Nadine and Jade: their ability to shuffle back and forth between these figures with ease and humour is among the strengths of this production.

Joseph's play presents its string of incidents in a loose, and occasionally clunky, format, where the spirit of liberation so characteristic of the carnival seems to have permeated the event's stage life, too. As the onstage DJ, Zuyane Russell provides a constant backdrop to the ebb and flow of action, even shaping it by means of her music. Coupled with strong performances by all members of the cast, Shelley Maxwell's movement design further energizes Joseph's rhythmic, lush writing.

With its many moving parts and restless spirit, J'Ouvert sometimes falls short of living up to its ambitions, appearing somewhat constricted by its small cast size and minimalist design. After the initial charm of colourful lights and attractive feathers wears off, the spirit of the carnival struggles to assert itself as potently as it should.

While a greater degree of razzmatazz and a tighter story would have served it well, J'Ouvert remains commendable for managing to evoke the carnival's atmosphere and engage its sociopolitical dimensions in an efficient spirit. After all, what better way to capture this environment of creative freedom and community-building than in a theatre?

J'Ouvert at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 3 July

Photo credit: Helen Murray


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