BWW Review: LEAVE TO REMAIN, Lyric Hammersmith
It's the end of an era at the Lyric Hammersmith, as it is Sean Holmes' final season as artistic director - but it has begun in terrific style with the première of a new musical, written by Matt Jones and Bloc Party singer-songwriter Kele Okereke.
It is directed by Southpaw Dance Company's artistic director Robby Graham, and stars Tyrone Huntley and Billy Cullum as Obi and Alex, a gay couple contemplating marriage whilst battling secrets from their pasts.
Obi and Alex haven't known each other that long, but their budding relationship is moving at quite a pace: Alex knew it was love after only a few dates, and has already moved into Obi's East London flat.
So when his work threatens to take him away to Abu Dhabi, or force him to return home to America, it seems only natural for him to consider marriage. It would keep him in the UK, allowing him to stay with Obi - but what will Obi make of this idea?
The two men have had very different experiences with their families with regard to their sexuality: Alex's parents have always been very accepting, whereas Obi has mostly relied on his sister Chichi (Aretha Ayeh) since a traumatic outburst from his conservative Nigerian father. This has left him quite scarred, but his reluctance to open up to Billy could have devastating consequences.
From the outset, it's clear that you're in for something a bit different with this show. Kele Okereke's score was inspired by the West African highlife music that he grew up with, as well as the kind of things you hear in clubs - the result is a marriage of styles that successfully manages to combine the cultural elements of the show in audio form.
In his music career to date, Okereke has demonstrated a real knack for writing songs full of perceptive lyrics about love and modern relationships, on top of a social commentary aspect; with Leave To Remain he tackles a topic that is close to his heart, with compositions that are just as assured as ever.
Robby Graham's choreography and movement direction combines effortlessly with the music; stylistically and rhythmically the two elements are completely in sync, which creates a unique piece. Motion is very fluid, and almost dreamlike at times - the slow-motion background choreography is perhaps a little overused, but there are moments where it is very effective.
"To Family" is a particularly memorably choreographed number, with both of Alex and Obi's families joining them for a hastily arranged dinner party. Graham's direction is also very well thought out with regards to Rebecca Brower's set design, making scene transitions more engaging than your average show.
Given the potentially quite serious and dramatic subject matter, it's a surprisingly funny show - and very human. This is demonstrated to great effect by both sets of parents: enthusiastic Diane (Johanne Murdock) and down-to-earth Brian (Martin Fisher) on Alex's side, conflicted Grace (Rakie Ayola) and proud Kenneth (Cornell S. John) on Obi's.
Sandy Batchelor and Arun Blair-Mangat are also great value as on-off couple Raymond and Damien, as well as a handful of other characters; Batchelor's uppity and unimpressed registrar, and Blair-Mangat's hip priest both stand out.
Tyrone Huntley and Billy Cullum make a compelling couple, giving incredibly emotional portrayals of the effect of living with lies and mistrust - Cullum's performance of "5 Years" is particularly affecting. Ultimately, however, this is an uplifting story that swells the heart and leaves you misty-eyed, with both Huntley and Cullum putting in brave and bold performances that are full of vitality. Their solo vocals are second-to-none.
This is an exciting moment for new musical theatre, with a new gem of a show coming from a potentially unlikely source. At 110 minutes straight through it may need a little trim, but I won't hesitate in recommending it far and wide - catch it while you can.
Picture credit: Helen Maybanks