Reviewed – 6th June 2019
“a tribute to the true soul of carnival, one that has us honour its significance while we dance in our seats.”
Carnival means many things to many people. Nadine hears the spirits of her ancestors reclaiming the streets they weren’t allowed to call their own. This year, they will guide her as she competes for her chance to be seen. Jade sees a community under threat. Persuaded by her activist friend Nisha, she plans to deliver a speech encouraging people to make their voices heard. But the carnival is not the safe and joyful place it was when they were children. As their big moment edges closer, Nadine and Jade are forced to confront the dark side of home.
Cramming the whole of Notting Hill Carnival into Theatre503 might seem like an impossible task, but Rebekah Murrell’s production manages it with ease. Writer Yasmin Joseph paints an evocative picture of busy streets and sensory overloads, with locals jostling for space among curious outsiders. There are snapshots of the carnival from all sides: belligerent neighbours, nosey journalists, street vendors holding the same spot they have occupied for fifty years. Although the stage itself is relatively plain – adorned with Caribbean flags and minimal set pieces – Joseph’s script fizzes with energy that fills every corner of the space.
There is plenty of social commentary, some overt and some extremely subtle. The girls are fetishised for their race (‘you two look proper tropical,’ says one charmer) and slut-shamed by the men they reject. Carnival goers since childhood, they lament the rising price of old favourites and the influx of rich white hipsters. Nisha prides herself on being politically aware but, next to veteran activists, she seems hopelessly naïve. Scenes will often pause to make way for soca music, or end with a sudden outburst of movement. The integration of real carnival atmosphere shows the value of incorporating seemingly non-theatrical elements into plays; not only does it elevate Joseph’s script, but makes the whole thing all the more enjoyable.
The acting is assured, the dynamic between Sharla Smith (Nadine), Sapphire Joy (Jade), and Annice Bopari (Nisha) is incredibly natural. Smith and Joy slip in and out of characters with ease, playing seventy-year-old street vendors with the same vivacity as they do their central roles. Bopari is endearing as Nisha, prompting laughter at her over-earnestness and sympathy for her isolation.
Of the three, Nisha feels a little underdeveloped, her story a little vague. It would have been great to hear more about her connection to carnival and motivation for her activism in greater depth. But this is only a minor criticism, one that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the performance. J’ouvert is a tribute to the true soul of carnival, one that has us honour its significance while we dance in our seats.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Helen Murray
Theatre503 until 22nd June
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: