J’ouvert, Theatre 503

The process of getting J’ouvert, a debut play from Yasmin Joseph and the directorial debut of Rebekah Murrell (who starred in Nine Night at the National Theatre/Trafalgar Studios) to the stage was fraught with bad luck. Two of the original three actors dropped out, which meant on press night one actress was on book.

It is ambitious play, encompassing the spirit, commercialism and epic London J’ouvert, known as the Notting Hill Carnival and the physical energy needed from Nadine (Sharla Smith) and Jade (Sapphire Joy) is rarely seen outside West End theatres but sadly this still feels like a work in progress. A play trying to find its feet, it very much reminded me of the Old Vic’s Sylvia, a play with so much potential but disjointed and lacking the energy a production like this needs.

Copyright Helen Murray 2019

Joseph has so many ideas; the ghost of carnival founder Claudia Jones haunting Nadine as she attempts to win a competition to become Queen of the Carnival, the haunting site of Grenfell Tower and its own ghosts haunting this joyous event, the older Caribbean gentlemen who have seen murder and discrimination and the commercialism of the Carnival, getting more expensive and more white as the years go by. Murrell’s direction pulls it together but relationships remain unclear; how do Nadine and Jade know each other? How old are they? With more focus on the relationship between Nisha (Annice Bopari), with her Indian background and relative privilege, and Jade with her skin lighter than Nadine’s.

Ultimately Joseph is a good writer but this often felt very cliched; the continued romanticising of Grenfell as a battle between rich and poor for example but Joseph shines when looking at black masculinity, from the older gentlemen (though Windrush Scandal isn’t mentioned directly the issue of belonging when between the two worlds of the Caribbean and the UK is) and the young men portrayed by Smith and Joy who threaten their way through the carnival when they don’t get what they want and her take on the generational gap as an auntie judges Nadine’s role in the carnival is a great look at the hypocrisy of religion regarding sexuality. Joseph is trying to portray all aspects of being a young black woman in London and it far too complex for 100 minute play.

I would love to see this show again, in a new space with more focus on Joseph’s strengths. It sadly felt rushed and lacked the carnival energy that this show needs to fully get audiences on side.

J’ouvert is on until 22 June https://theatre503.com/whats-on/jouvert/

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