“A Strange Loop” at the Barbican Theatre

Michael R Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning musical is one of the most anticipated pieces of theatre this year. First produced off-Broadway in 2019, it has arrived in London relatively quickly along with rhapsodic reviews. With an exciting score, it is riotously funny, provocative and extremely clever. Although you might say that A Strange Loop is extreme all-round.

If you’ve heard about the show already, it will probably be about its meta-theatricality, which we’ve seen before, but maybe not to this extent. A Strange Loop is a musical about writing not one but two musicals. Usher (our hero goes by his job title) is a young, impoverished composer, who has taken on ghost-writing a Tyler Perry-style show for cash while also working on a personal project about… himself.

Here’s where the big theme of identity comes in. The show’s title comes from cognitive science and a theory about our conception of the ‘I’ – that our construction of ‘self’ is illusory. Yet there’s plenty of reality for Usher, who sings about being black, gay, feminine, poor and plus-size, plus the size of his penis. A lot of this is amusing and, when it comes to his troubled sex and family life, also moving. But if it sounds like a lot… well, it is.

Plenty in A Strange Loop is close to the bone. There is a rawness to the observations about race and sex that makes the writing and central performance from Kyle Ramar Freeman hugely impressive. As well as sounding fantastic while singing the complex, dense songs, Ramar Freeman’s acting is incredible. And the part is huge – he’s only offstage for the quickest of costume changes.

Kyle Ramar Freeman

Usher is joined by his ’thoughts’ – six more performers are needed to do justice to the complexity of this character! But they are more than a great-sounding chorus for an internal dialogue, taking on the roles of imaginary characters and people in Usher’s life. And note, the ‘thoughts’ don’t just play Usher’s family – they play the stereotyped versions of them in Usher’s head. This can be confusing, so credit to director Stephen Brackett for making the show as clear as can be, but those layers are part of the point. Jackson is ruthless when it comes to stereotypes. The fact that A Strange Loop is very rude isn’t the only thing that makes it uncomfortable.

Thinking of complaining? There are some genuinely shocking lyrics and situations. So much so that the humour is a tough call at times. Does it all go too far (even some of the characters ask for it to stop)? But Jackson uses upsetting instances of homophobia and racism intelligently. Whatever criticism you think about the music or attitude – Jackson has it covered, not least in a brilliant scene where the ‘thoughts’ transform into the ‘Second Coming of Sondheim Society’ to criticise his work.

Jackson’s is a harsh look at gay and black culture, neither of which seem to offer Usher any kind of support. Lyrics are often sung to tunes whose jauntiness seems cruel, but the beef can’t be said to be superficial. The arguments, as well as the jokes, are detailed, flooding out from the script in a way that is astonishingly accomplished. Praise again to all the performers for managing so well – not a single number is easy to perform. Yes, Jackson is way ahead of us, but it seems that is a lonely place to be. A vein of sorrow, alongside anger, runs through the piece.

So how much of the show’s appeal comes from extremes? Aside from the fact that we seldom see characters like Usher represented on stage, the frankness with which issues are tackled is remarkable. A Strange Loop is a show you want to start again as soon as it has finished. But is that just because it is so complex? Time will tell. It’s hard to get over the surprise of hearing lyrics like “the second wave feminist in me is at war with the dick-sucking black gay man”, let alone finding yourself humming it on the way home.

Until 9 September 2023


Photos by Marc Brenner