Cochrane Theatre, London WC1
Opened 12 December, 1994

Talawa, the Cochrane's resident theatre company, have over the past few Christmases established their credentials as purveyors of alternative seasonal fare which acknowledges the company's primary constituency, black Britain. What could be better than a play written around the Caribbean tradition of Jonkunnu (a kind of masked, musical mumming) and set at Christmas 1841? However, this acute idea is realised with frustrating patchiness.

Maskarade's first act is almost entirely exposition, with and without musical accompaniment. Driver, who plays the King in a Jonkunnu troupe, decides to oust his partner of 15 years onstage and off, Miss Gatha, in favour of young Quashiba, but her boyfriend Cuffee sees through his designs. And that's about it, with the exception of an authoritarian mayor of Kingston town lurking on the sidelines, waiting for an excuse to ban Jonkunnu altogether.  Songs come and go, seldom with much reason, and accompanied (for unfortunate budgetary reasons) by a single keyboard and a brace of percussionists not enough to create the powerful, infectious sounds necessary to sustain the numbers. The unfortunately named Lovey, a Kingston storyteller, narrates the action and occasionally orchestrates proceedings in a desultory way, but again the idea is irksomely under-utilised, a mere nod to oral tradition and no more.

As the interval ends, the percussionists enter through the auditorium, followed by the Jonkunnu company now in costume, and we're pitched excitingly into their play. Now Maskarade finally begins firing on all cylinders, though still with the occasional sputter: writer Sylvia Wynter and director Yvonne Brewster don't quite bring off the machinations going on among the company during the play, until tensions erupt in a genuine duel between King Driver and Prince Cuffee.  Then, suddenly, the Jonkunnu play is tragically over, the mayor gets his stiff-necked way and the company disperse in grief. A final ham-fisted attempt to invoke the ultimate victory of history fails to alleviate an ending in the most unseasonal spirit I've seen this year.

It's all very well determining to avoid well-ploughed theatrical furrows at this time of year, but Brewster should have kept a sharper eye out for the numerous ditches in the path of this particular enterprise, ditches into which it lurches all too often.

Written for the London Evening Standard.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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