“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.
“Barrie offers the majority of light relief throughout the play, her rolling eyes and gurning facial expressions being priceless”
Northern town. Tick. The ins and outs of the local offie. Tick. This may sound like we’re venturing into Open All Hours territory, however, Tabitha Mortiboy’s latest play, The Amber Trap, is far removed from the corny jokes and canned laughter of the former. It’s a modern twist on a staple of British culture.
Things have been fine and dandy in the local corner shop. Everything working like clockwork, the same old faces come shuffling in and out. Katie and her girlfriend Hope have been harmoniously working at the shop for two years, stealing kisses in between the aisles. It’s Katie’s little haven, where she can be her true self with Hope, without anyone watching. This soon changes once manager Jo, hires new kid Michael. As sweet and innocent as the boy seems, he instantly shifts the dynamic of their microcosm, becoming a real cat amongst the pigeons.
Where Mortiboy scores most with this play is her examination of Katie and Hope’s relationship, from the highs of young love to the lows of painful truths. The ambiguous and abrupt ending comes as a deflated anti-climax, which leaves a tinge of disappointment. There are also times where Katie’s actions and motivations are a little questionable, or you feel, as an audience, you don’t quite understand her reasonings, however, Olivia Rose Smith plays her with naturalistic sensitivity and believability that allows you to oversee this.
Fanta Barrie as Hope is fiery, fun and has a gob that can get her into trouble, but under it all is a complete softy, infatuated with her girlfriend. Barrie offers the majority of light relief throughout the play, her rolling eyes and gurning facial expressions being priceless. Misha Butler, playing Michael, is skin-crawlingly odd. His progression from sweet with strange tendencies, to full blown creep with a troubled past, makes it uncomfortable to watch at times, although rather predictable – it’s always the nice ones!
The set (designed by Jasmine Swan) has been painstakingly put together to recreate a decrepit, ageing corner shop we all know and love, stocked with cheap booze, packets of crisps that shouldn’t be sold separately, and sad-looking sandwiches. The intricate detail Swan has gone into helps to suck the audience into the claustrophobic, “matchbox” world of the store.
With an ace soundtrack of pounding Noughties indie tunes, the crackly shop radio plays an integral part in emphasising certain moods of the characters or atmospheres within scenes. Annie May Fletcher’s sound design proves an important component within the overall story.
As strong as the performances and as brilliant as the designs are, the writing is where certain cracks show with much of the dialogue falling back on cliches and predictable outcomes. Nevertheless, it’s still an enjoyable trip down the road for a pint of laughter and a box of unnerving drama.