POISON
Tricycle Theatre, London NW6
Opened 21 February, 2000

A powerful man, stealthily goaded into psychotic jealousy by his malevolent henchman, comes to believe falsely that his younger wife is having an affair with a trusted lieutenant, and kills her. Sounds familiar? Yes, but here, Othello is transmuted into Harlesden crack baron Michael, trying to break his wife Nita as a singer with the help of musical maestro Lyric (Cassio), but manipulated all the time by the Iago-figure of street dealer Poison, who gives the show its title. Also, it's a musical.

Nothing wrong with that Jack Good's 1970s adaptation Catch My Soul, in which Othello is a charismatic preacher-man, is much underrated. In this case, though, David Kramer and Taliep Petersen (assisted by Jenny McLeod, who has relocated the action from its original setting of Cape Town's District Six to London's NW10) try to fit too many eggs in one basket, combining the narrative of jealousy with an anti-drugs Message with a capital M. The first clutch of scenes and numbers, crucial for exposition, almost drown in a welter of trite didacticism of the sort more likely to drive young people on to drugs than off them. This is a show in which a "Rat On A Rat" poster can be displayed and that tired old slogan "Just Say No" parroted more than once, with a straight face, as advice to adults, while the degradation and hopelessness which make chemicals an attractive escape route in the first place are dispensed with in a single couplet or perfunctorily symbolised in wire fences against which the chorus singers can pose moodily.

The production is on altogether surer ground when following the main story, although here, too, Petersen's pre-programmed music mostly treads the path of soft rock with an occasional foray into unthreatening techno-pop. Guy Burgess relishes the malignity of Poison, Shelley Williams and Claudia Cadette are sweet-voiced as Nita and Lyric's anti-drugs worker beloved Pamela respectively, and Horace Oliver's Shaggy is a naive wide-boy dupe in the mould of Shakespeare's Roderigo. As Lyric, Koffi Missah is buffeted around somewhat by the whims of the script, but finds a plausible path between lovestruck musical yearning and the numbed, crackhead shuffle. However, all that earnest proselytising has taken its toll; on the press night, some of the audience rose to their feet at the curtain call, but others audibly giggled at the big homicidal climax just before it.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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