Tag Archives: Gabrielle Brooks

“Once On This Island” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Summer theatre is off to a great, if chilly, start with this intriguing show for children. A 1990 piece with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music from Stephen Flaherty there are problems with Once On This Island. But the ambition is stirring, this production strong, and the lead performance superb.

The story is a fable set on a Caribbean Island with a peasant girl called Ti Moune falling in love and sacrificing herself for the much richer, and paler, Daniel. Once On This Island is very much her story, which is welcome. And it hopes to address serious issues as Colourism, stemming from Colonialism, is the prejudice that prevents romance.

Behind the edifying aims though, Ahrens work is frustrating. Admittedly, the accents in this production don’t help – it’s a struggle to work out what is being said. But the action, while simple, is confused: a group of tourists as a framing device is a distraction, a potted history of the Island comes too late, and Daniel’s life (and his actual fiancé) are thinly sketched.

In fact, all the characters are slim. Ti Moune’s adoptive parents have little to say or do (a shame given strong performances from Chris Jarman and Natasha Magigi). Even the Gods Ti Moune makes a wager with are pedestrian. Ti Moune herself is only appealing because of a star performance from Gabrielle Brooks. Worst of all is Daniel (despite another great performance from Stephenson Ardern-Sodje) whose only  big number surely offends all women including the one he is wooing! Daniel accepts his fate without question – which is original I suppose, maybe even realistic. But it is a mystery why Ti Moune is bothering with him.

The score is much better and very easy on the ear. It’s the music, rather than the lyrics, that provide all the emotion – romance, tension, and humour. And the music makes sure the show is entertaining. The cast responds with gusto.

Director Ola Ince has clear ideas making sure the action holds attention. Georgia Lowe’s design has surprises that belie its simplicity while Melissa Simon-Hartman costumes are a highlight. Brooks is the secret though – with a fantastically powerful voice that commands the whole auditorium her singing gives the show the sense of gravitas that it really wants.

Until 11 June 2023


Photos by Marc Brenner

“J’ouvert” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Although the Notting Hill carnival has been cancelled for the second year running, theatre-goers can get closer than ever to the spirit of the event with Yasmin Joseph’s play.

Using the specific term to describe the street party element of Carnival, Joseph opens up interesting topics, from cultural history to issues around class, gender, and race. 

It’s not easy to raise so many issues so well. And Joseph doesn’t shy away from controversial tensions within and between groups that show complex legacies and lives. Expertly marshalled by director Rebekah Murrell, we’re given time to consider thoughts so skilfully provoked.

This all sounds serious. And J’ouvert is… As we follow two friends around for the day, there is plenty of menace and pain. Nadine is preparing to compete as a dancer and Jade about to give her first speech as an activist. Joseph balances a concern for heritage, where Nadine communes with the past (scenes that aid the show’s pace), and Jade’s passion for a better future (which ends, sorry for the spoiler, in a barn-storming speech). Both women’s passions add to the tension and, meanwhile, they are pursued by lechers and censorious relatives. But J’ouvert is also very funny.

“Fear and joy”

In the spirit of release that characterises Carnival, plenty of the problems addressed benefit from Joseph’s ability as a comedic writer. There are throwaway observations that have spark and sometimes a spike, and there’s a line in insults that would make many of a stand-up comic envious. Having her cast impersonate men of different ages provides more than one highlight. And with such chances in the script, the cast proves thrilling.

Taking a third character first, Annice Boparai’s Nisha is a fine target for humour. As she campaigns to improve the area (she has badges), to label her as ‘woke’ is easy enough. But both Boparai and Joseph add skilfully to the role, showing us a character who is lost, vulnerable and genuinely well-meaning. It’s a part full of surprises that reflects the play’s combination of troubles and jokes.

There’s no question that, as Nadine and Jade, Gabrielle Brooks and Sapphire Joy have the appropriate star quality for these great parts. And these are fantastic performances. But note how cleverly Joseph flips the focus between the two. Is a link to ghosts our focus or a burgeoning political consciousness? Of course, with a play this good it is both.

Originally seen at the Theatre 503, the fear that the show might feel lost on a West End stage must have crossed minds. But that doesn’t happen for a moment. Aided by Zuyane Russell as a DJ, the palpable energy in this production is fantastic. Bearing in mind we only see four performers, dance and personality fill the theatre admirably. J’ouvert is a play to celebrate.

Until 3 July 2021


"Anna Bella Eema" at the Arcola Theatre

While firmly rooted in the tradition of fairy tales, this 2007 piece, from experimental theatre maker Lisa D’Amour, balances magic and madness with startling originality. It will not be to all tastes, but the complexity and ambition of the text demand respect.

In a trailer park facing demolition, the housebound Irene and her daughter Annabella are joined by the title character, a golem that the youngster creates as she begins puberty. Both of the human characters tell stories that start out whacky and become truly insane. Their small world is crowded with monsters and metamorphosis. Mental illness is a topic the audience is challenged into addressing: someone should help this family… shouldn’t they? And there’s another ‘M’ – motherhood – packing the play’s emotional punch and, for my money, producing its finest moments. Many of the tales told are funny, a few provide insight into the real world and some are frustratingly opaque.

Adding to the bizarre feel, there’s a cappella singing, and percussion from kitchen equipment, with a score by Chris Sidorfsky that matches D’Amour’s otherworldly interests. You don’t often get a lullaby for a lycanthrope, after all. 

Beverly Rudd as Irene in Anna Bella Eema at the Arcola Theatre
Beverly Rudd

As you can guess, nothing here is easy for the talented trio performing. The wonderful Beverly Rudd leads the way, grounding the show as a charismatic agoraphobic. The daughter is played by Gabrielle Brooks, who gives a tremendous performance as a young girl old before her time. Brooks’ suggestions of the wild, that D’Amour becomes fixated with, are superb. By no means least, Natasha Cottriall performs as the mythic creation, along with many smaller roles, bringing grace as well as ethereal vocals to the show.

Performing actions as they narrate them makes the demands on all the actors heavier – a lot of what occurs is supernatural – which is where director Jessica Lazar really shines. With a text that’s as much a poem as a play, it takes a close study to aid the audience and I, for one, am grateful that Lazar allows us time to absorb some of what is on offer.

Because Anna Bella Eemareally does have a lot going on, and not just in terms of topics: the imagery is wonderfully rich, the ground covered metaphorically immense and D’Amour’s imagination awe-inspiring. The perspectives that the author describes as “prismatic” in her introduction make the play a mind boggler from the beginning. And we’re warned by Irene that time and reality merge in her trailer – there’s a lot of this. 

By the time we get to a dream sequence for Annabella – with racoons, foxes and wolves – the show is in danger of becoming repetitive and exhausting. In the finale, the impact of reality is little explored, making the ending for Annabella unclear. Asking a lot from an audience is an author’s prerogative. But there’s surely an irony that, unlike the fairy tales that are such an inspiration, regrettably, this show lacks universal appeal.

Until 12 October 2019


Photos by Holly Revell