BWW Review: PRINCESS AND THE HUSTLER, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
When sharing moments that make history, it often pays to focus on the smaller stories that represent the bigger picture.
This is exactly what Chinonyerem Odimba's Princess and the Hustler does. Directed by Dawn Walton, and co-produced by Eclipse Theatre Company, Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck Theatre, it's both a joyful, soulful exploration of identity and a powerful commemoration of change in black history.
This production tells tales of the struggle for racial equality in 1960s Britain, primarily focusing on the campaigners for Black British Civil Rights and the Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 through the eyes and hearts of one family.
Phyllis Princess James is a pint-sized aspiring beauty queen whose life is turned upside down; first, by the return of her father Wendell, or 'The Hustler,' and then by the fight against racism and for equality, both of which burst through her front door and leave change in their wake.
Princess's innocent and glittering dreams of beauty pageants, choc ices and sandy toes are suddenly thrown into disarray as she tries to make sense of her own place in the world and her own identity. She is on the cusp of adolescence and continually told by her brother to "grow up", changing at the same time as the rest of the world.
Her mother, Mavis, works her hands raw with several jobs to keep the family afloat, and her brother Wendell 'Junior' is an aspiring photographer desperate to stand up for his beliefs and make his mark. Upon the ominous arrival of the roguish Hustler and his daughter Lorna, the James family doubles in a matter of hours, and nothing will ever be the same again.
With such a focus on personal stories, the cast must be up to the challenge of bringing true character and emotion to the stage. Fortunately, each member of the cast accomplishes this perfectly.
Kudzai Sitima's Princess is a bubbly, bold and curious little girl who dreams of wearing a crown regardless of what people say about her, and she is a pure joy to watch as she twists and turns and lights up the stage.
Donna Berlin's Mavis is poised, devoted and strong, with impressive stage presence. Seun Shote's Hustler is every inch the wheeling, dealing scoundrel; though imperfect, he is irresistible to both his weary wife and the audience alike, and manages to charm his way into our hearts when his morality and vulnerability is exposed.
Jade Yourell as the James family's brassy Bristolian neighbour, Margot, is wonderfully entertaining, and acts as an everywoman; her problematic views represent common beliefs held by many at the time this play is set, but her love for Mavis and Princess really shines through.
A whole world is confined within the walls of the flat. The audience is invited to witness the personal stories and identities that sit behind the headlines and the history of this pivotal moment in time.
With all action contained within a small space, the set provides the perfect location for the story to unfold: designer Simon Kenny transforms the stage and transports us into the sixties with bright, bold prints and small, effective details that welcome us into the family home.
The storyline is steady, enchanting, and easy to follow; there is both beauty and relatability in its everyday simplicity. Princess and the Hustler is part of the Revolution Mix - an Eclipse movement that aims to be the largest delivery of Black British stories. This is the experience of one family at one historic moment in time in Bristol; one of countless others worldwide. It tells an important story, and ensures that it's not lost, forgotten, or ignored.
This is a play that deftly showcases, celebrates and commemorates the fight for racial equality that took place - and indeed, continues to take place - both on the streets and in the home. There are, tragically, moments of recognition where archaic and troubling attitudes towards race, voiced by Margot and many in Bristol's community, feel unnervingly familiar.
It's clear that this production not only marks how far we have come, but how far we still have to go. The many issues tackled here seem timeless and as real today as they were in 1963: Princess's relationship with her identity, her hair and her sister Lorna; the attack upon Junior and his friends; and the definition of beauty, to name but a few.
But the joyfulness, innocence, and hope that weaves in and out of the show's narrative shows a determination to finally reach a place of true equality.
Princess and the Hustler is a celebration of all things bold, black and beautiful. It's an expressive, heartening and significant production that uses small-scale storytelling to explore a much bigger picture, traversing decades and ensuring that we don't lose sight of the steps that previous generations took to make change possible.
Photo credit: The Other Richard