Joe Guy / Kebab / Hairspray / Small Metal Objects
Various venues
October / November, 2007

Everyone seems to have been talking about race during these two weeks.  A remarkably batty article on the Guardian’s blog site manages to suggest that Roy Williams, of all people, is an Uncle Tom, “simply part of a trend picked up by the white men in power, in which non-white men are ‘in’ for the time being”… conveniently ignoring that the “white man in power” who commissioned Williams’ Joe Guy is, er, Femi Elufowoju Jr of Tiata Fahodzi.  Quentin Letts treats the black-on-black prejudice so acutely indicted in Joe Guy with equanimity but recoils at what he mistakenly considers to be black-on-white racism in not just some characters’ attitudes but the play’s own; then, in the following day’s review, he thinks nothing of describing a black character in Hairspray as “a hot-pumping Mama”.  It’s the capital letter, I think, that does it, taking the word within a hair’s-breadth of “Mammy”.  I can’t help remembering a moment during this year’s Edinburgh Fringe when former MP Neil Hamilton, during his and his wife Christine’s daily chat show, remarked to African-American performer Jonelle Allen that he believed in plain speech and calling a spade a spade.  She, with admirable presence of mind, quickly went into a parody of outrage and so turned the matter into a joke, perhaps showing rather more tact than was deserved, and certainly more diplomacy than the erstwhile government minister himself.


Another interesting Lettsism is his presumption that “the point of [Kebab at the Royal Court] is to tell us that illegal immigrants, wherever they are, have a jolly hard time of things”.  Kebab is about some Romanians in Ireland.  Both countries are members of the European Union.  Therefore, freedom of movement exists without visa, and the characters by definition cannot be illegal migrants.  But there’s a strain of political discourse in Britain that can’t help prefixing “immigrants” with “illegal”, or “asylum seekers” with “bogus”, as if they were part of the same compound noun.  Such people may even in the same breath praise our enlightened values.

Myself, I watched Kebab with a deep ambivalence.  Only days earlier I had, in one of my night raids on a theatrical blog, commented: “Shouldn’t ‘cultural diversity’ now also take into account the eastern-European communities [in Britain]?  How many arts venues are doing so?  I genuinely don’t know.”  To which blogger Andrew Haydon replied, “By ‘reflecting cultural diversity’, do you mean theatres that are getting young Eastern Europeans and making them write kitchen-sink dramas about what it’s like being Eastern European in London?  I’m kidding, of course, but only slightly.”  And there I was, sitting with Andrew in the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, watching precisely that kind of work (all right, with the substitution of Dublin for London).  It’s almost a self-parody of “the Royal Court play”; I don’t know whether to praise Aleks Sierz for bucking the trend and finding substance and excitement in it, or to hoot that of course he would because his compulsive championing of “in-yer-face theatre” (© A Sierz) probably in large part drew the template for it.  Still, writer Gianina Carbunariu unintentionally supplied a perfect emblem for her play: when the characters begin to wax nostalgic about home cooking, the first dish they sigh about is ciorba de burta, which my phrasebook describes sardonically as a soup made with “a small amount of vegetables and a large amount of beef tripe”.  Tripe soup: that, I’m afraid, is Kebab.  (That sentence looks like a mixed metaphor, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t one.)


Sometimes, of course, we can be over-eager in our desire to be on the right side of the race issue.  Sam Marlowe, in her review of You Can’t Take It With You, finds something suspect in a description of a black maid as “awfully cute, like Porgy and Bess”.  No doubt Hart & Kaufman were being a little blithe by today’s standards, but primarily they were being topical: their play premièred barely a year after Gershwin’s opera.

And then there’s the perverseness of yours truly.  Given the choice between Race and Fat in my review of Hairspray, I went for Fat.  It’s not that I insist that the subject of obesity be treated with gravity (and I use the term advisedly), or think that the musical is anything but a piece of fun… and an excellent one.  I was just noting that when you have two aspects, and portray them equally in one respect, then it puts you in an awkward position when the merest shift of angle reveals that, in another way, you’re treating the same two topics in almost diametrically opposite ways.  It’s a testimony to the show’s strengths that it sails past such a contradiction, not just with no-one minding, but with scarcely anyone even noticing.  (Caroline McGinn also mentions it in passing.  But did nobody think to spell out that the very fact that the black kids are in Special Ed. is itself a manifestation of racism?  Anyway…)  And it’s certainly a good thing that my FT editors excised several (though not all) references in my review to my own physical status, as the Jabba the Hutt of British theatre criticism.


I wish I had had the chance to write at some length about Small Metal Objects, which – although dramatically it’s no big deal – strikes me as full of resonance in the relationship between audience, company and presentation.  Tamara Gausi refers to Back To Back as an “integrated theatre company”, in the sense of working with people with learning disabilities.  But with this show, what they have produced is a piece of theatre integrated with a busy everyday environment – in the case of its London outing, Stratford rail and underground station in east London just after evening rush hour.  In putting the audience on display for the hundreds of travellers passing through during the performance, it reverses the usual theatrical gaze, and does so far more intensely than conventional devices such as traverse staging, when the only people watching us are ourselves.  Here, the actors are among the crowd; it is we who are on display.  And, whatever the eccentricities of characters Gary and Steve, it is we, sitting in our ranks with our headphones on in the middle of a transport hub, who are the oddities.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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