Trafalgar Studios, London SW1
Opened 25 October, 2004

While the Young Vic is rebuilt, it’s re-staging some of its greatest recent hits in various other London venues.  Josette Bushell-Mingo’s production of a musical by the now neglected mid-20th century black American writer Langston Hughes was lauded in spring 2003.  The story’s not wildly sophisticated, the music not especially so either, but by gum, it raises the roof for two and a half hours virtually non-stop.

The title is a nod to Hughes’s hero, a character from his newspaper columns, Jesse B Semple (“jes’ be simple”). Simple is no fool, just an ordinary, put-upon Joe in 1950s Harlem.  He wants to marry his beloved Joyce, but can’t get the money for a divorce from his first wife. Also, his vampish ex-girlfriend Zarita won’t let go.  He shares his tribulations with the motley crew of regulars at Paddy’s bar.

It’s no big giveaway to say the plot is simply “boy loses girl, boy gets girl”.  There are fleeting shadows of the hard-knock life: a character gets drafted into the Army, another is beaten (offstage) by the police, we see a newspaper headline about one of the historic flashpoints of desegregation.  But it’s the love story that drives things. Perhaps it’s better summed up: “Romance without finance is a nuisance”.

Rhashan Stone and Allyson Brown are an engaging central couple, and Nicola Hughes sashays wonderfully as Zarita.  But it’s the bar characters who steal the limelight, and in particular the duo of matronly Miss Mamie and her roly-poly suitor Melon, played by Ruby Turner and Clive Rowe respectively.  When they sing the blues, you’re riveted; when they belt it out, it’s the opposite – rivets pop from girders!

David Martin’s score is straightforward blues and jazz, with the occasional tinge of bebop, and some first-rate dobro guitar work by Dale Superville.  Despite the background fabric of the various everyday difficulties suffered by African-Americans, this is very much a feelgood show: it fills you with the joy of the moment, whatever’s to come.  I can’t imagine a more uplifting start for the Young Vic’s season in exile.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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