Since the days of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, musicals have been hung on the perfunctory storyline of... trying to put on a musical. In this case, Up Against The Wall is a compilation "blaxploitation" musical about staging a compilation "blaxploitation" musical. Or is it? When do affirmation and celebration become a matter of marketing? This Black Theatre Co-Operative production can surely not be accused of out-and-out exploitation, but the show does seem to have been assembled with a sometimes unsettling amount of calculation.
Felix Cross and Paulette Randall's story (directed by Randall) is simple: two guys want to stage a compilation musical which camply plays up all the 1970s "blaxploitation" cliches. They assemble their cast, which includes the woman who really lived it back then in Harlem, the convent girl, the attitudinising young buck, and the nerdish Surrey-raised writer... oh, and the "director" is a secret boozer as well. Enough character types for a fair bit of comedy, a dollop of drama, and a few meaningful statements. In fact, the play includes blatant set-pieces about the Harlem experience, modern-day Brixton, the realities of suburban racism and the transcendent joys offered by the church. These sequences, however, seem to have been deliberately slotted in to give the show some ballast of substance, in which the audience does not seem especially interested. For example, the play opens with Mark McLean's Vincent, spotlit, delivering a Black Panther "by any means necessary" speech; the rest of the lights then come up to reveal that this is in fact an audition piece – the audience laughs as much in relief as in amusement at the shift in context.
Almost all pretence at weightiness is jettisoned in the second half: the show-within-the-show itself. Drunken "director" Courtenay is self-consciously put into a minister's robes for his preachy interruptions which threaten to derail the "show", but the majority of the plot's loose ends remain un-tied up. It is also apparent that Cross and Randall, as much as Courtenay and Henry, are by now going all-out for the feel-good camp factor, as we get the theme from Shaft (nearly as hilarious as Bart and Lisa Simpson's version) and a rendition of "I Will Survive" in which singer Suzanne Packer is consistently drowned out by the audience singalong. It all makes for an enjoyable two and a half hours – James Taylor Quartet vocalist Noel McKoy, as Henry, delivers several powerful numbers, and Lorna Brown's delivery of "Take Me To The River" rivals Al Green's original for sweetness of voice – but ultimately Cross and Randall all but lose the pill amid the Afro-wigged, stacked-heeled sugar. Less Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song than Car Wash – whose theme, not insignificantly, is used as the curtain-call number.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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