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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


J'Ouvert
BBC iPlayer   May 2021

Yasmin Joseph's play, first seen at the fringe Theatre 503 in 2019 and transferring to the West End for a limited run in summer 2021, was recorded for BBC4 and is available on BBC iPlayer.

Set in the annual Notting Hill Carnival, it is both a celebration and an analysis of cultural, racial, class and sexual identity.

(Note for non-Londoners: the event, started in the 1960s to salute Caribbean culture, has grown into a two-day mix of parades, street concerts and general celebration, occasionally marred by violence. Joseph's title is an alternative word for carnival, possibly based on the French Caribbean word for dawn, implying an all-day event.)

The two central characters, ordinary working women during the year, are first seen strutting in full feathers-and-bangles costumes in the parade. One (Gabrielle Brooks) is looking forward to a dance contest later in the day, while the other (Sapphire Joy) will be speaking at a political rally.

In the course of the day they meet with an Asian friend (Annice Boparai), flirt with a couple of guys, react to the commercialisation represented by overpriced street food, dance to a DJ (Zuyane Russell) and encounter drunken white onlookers, older black guys, the spirit of the Carnival's founder and others, all played by Brooks and Joy in quick changes of character.

Always lively, always high-energy, the play pauses only occasionally to make some of its serious points, as when the ghostly founder insists that the girls recognise that celebrating their cultural past is a political act in white Britain.

Indeed, the play's strongest insight is that what may seem separate plot strands the women cope with passing bits of racism, class snobbery, sexism and casual violence are actually interrelated in the whole package that is the black British experience.

The play's greatest strength is, however, its greatest theatrical weakness, because what we may eventually come to understand is a complex but unified vision is a little too scattershot as we experience it.

With the action jumping from happy moments to pensive ones, and the women no sooner coping with a racist slur than they encounter a disapproving church lady or a horny guy or the demanding ghost or the rip-off food seller, the play can feel like it's spinning off in a bunch of different directions without a centre.

Rebekah Murrell's production has been restaged for multiple cameras and, although recorded in the stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre, gives very little sense of a live theatrical performance.

Gerald Berkowitz


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Review of  J'Ouvert - BBC iPlayer 2021