Tag Archives: Stephen Brackett

“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

“Be More Chill” at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Joe Iconis’ musical knows its early teen audience well and its soundtrack has been a phenomenal success. Based on the novel for young adults by Ned Vizzini, with the show’s book by Joe Tracz, its “loser” hero Jeremy takes a pill containing a computer that will make him popular. The free-will twist has thankfully struck a chord with its young demographic. My question is, can the show please a larger crowd as well as its intended cohort?

There are limitations to the high school musical genre. Be More Chill follows a formula and has the usual earnestness, with the extra irony of telling you how important it is to relax. And there’s an expected cheeky edge that isn’t as funny as it would like to be. Take the school play (the obligatory public event for the finale) of A Midsummer Night’s Dream… with zombies – it gets a laugh but, if you’re my age, you’ve probably seen that production for real. 

Stewart Clarke as The Squip in Be More Chill
Stewart Clarke as The Squip

Problems carry through to director Stephen Brackett’s production. The silliness in the scenario is embraced but is checked by the undoubted, essential, sincerity. Taking the teenagers’ problems seriously is important but sits uneasily with the camp nonsense. There is fun – credit to Stewart Clarke as ‘The Squip’, the nanotechnology performed larger than life – but you can’t escape a sense of trying too hard.

Blake Patrick Anderson and Scott Folan in Be More Chill
Blake Patrick Anderson and Scott Folan

But there are no complications with the music – look at those download figures! Iconis’ lyrics are good and the songs entertaining. There’s plenty of variety and adventurous touches while electronica is kept under control. Every number is a big one (on stage, a little overwhelming) and the whole cast get good turns. From Millie O’Connell, in a relatively small role, showing strong comedy skills, to Blake Patrick Anderson’s show-stopping number Michael in the Bathroom: he gives that soundtrack a run for its money… music is better live!

Miracle Chance and Scott Folan in Be More Chill
Miracle Chance and Scott Folan

The characters and performances are strong. The lead part of Jeremy is a true star role, studiously written as ‘relatable”, which Scott Folan gives his all to. Barely off the stage, Folan manages that balance between funny and sincere. And it’s impossible not to be won over by his love interest, the admirably independent Christine. She loves the theatre, so we love her, and the performance by Miracle Chance is suitably adorable. 

There are many parallels to draw with another teen hit, Dear Evan Hansen – about a troubled teen in a crazy situation – that Iconis surely has mixed feelings about. Avoiding numbers for parents (there’s only half of one that Christopher Fry does well with) seems a sensible move. And taking itself slightly less seriously, with Brackett’s help, also helps. Be More Chill has no room for cynicism, and a light touch is when the show becomes truly winning. Relax and you’ll like it, whatever your age.

Until 5 September 2021


“Buyer and Cellar” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

It’s a pretty crazy premise: a man working alone in a shopping mall created by Barbra Streisand underneath her home. But hold on – the bit about the shops, designed to hold Streisand’s various collections, is true. Jonathan Tolins’ award-winning one man play, Buyer and Cellar, overflows with jokes that arise from this bizarre scenario, while serving as a tremendous vehicle for Michael Urie, as out-of-work actor Alex, giving one of the most endearing performances you’re likely to see.

Alex’s meeting with Streisand, who Urie also plays, makes for an enchanting fiction. Stephen Brackett’s direction carefully preserves a spontaneous feel that makes Alex so personable. His mix of wry humour and naïve enthusiasm goes to the heart of a play very much about cynicism. There are great one-liners, slow-burning gags and plenty of observations about gay life. With a Jewish mother joke as well, of course.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any camper, Alex starts to coach Streisand for a new film version of Gypsy. And if the casting strikes you as impractical as quickly as it does Alex’s boyfriend (another character Urie conveys impressively), then this is the play for you.

Buyer and Cellar works hard to be more than an extended comedy sketch: looking at the nature of celebrity and questions of self-worth. There’s a West Coast wisdom behind a lot of the jokes that stays with you. It has to be admitted that a knowledge of Streisand, a Yiddish dictionary and familiarity with LA helps – but even without these (believe it or not) I roared with laughter. How Tolins manages to take so many swipes at his icon without the piece feeling mean, while cleverly using Streisand’s status to create his own art, makes his play unique and somehow quite magical. He’s a mensch.

Until 2 May 2015


Photo by Joan Marcus