A slice of explosive, gritty, witty, youthful urban life, J’ouvert is a play set in the streets of Notting Hill during its annual August bank holiday celebration of African-Caribbean culture. And in a year in which, for the second year running, the actual event has been cancelled due to Covid, this 2019 play about it has an extra poignance and resonance: a moment to reflect and take stock of what the festival itself represents, through the prism of three friends who gather to take part in it.
Obviously its a tall order to put all of the festival’s teeming, crowded life on a stage with just three actors (Annice Boparai, Gabrielle Brooks, Sapphire Joy) to represent it, plus an onstage DJ (Zuyane Russell) but this play by debut playwright Yasmin Joseph and director Rebekah Murrell (also making her directorial debut after a career as an actor) accomplishes it surprisingly well, and a youthful, diverse audience — eager to see and hear their own stories being told — responds with vocal relish.
picture: Helen Murray
Part of the thrill of seeing this transfer to the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre is to see it there at all; producer Sonia Friedman, who has brought it there as part of a 3-play Re:Emerge season of new plays that is attempting to recalibrate what commercial theatre stands for, has made a bold statement and intervention. The question is whether the momentum for changing that landscape can be sustained.
Certainly, the play would have seemed a tall order for the pre-pandemic West End (though plays like Natasha Gordon’s Nine Nights — in which Murrell had herself appeared — and Arinzé Kene’s Misty had both transferred to the West End from the National and Bush, respectively). J’Ouvert began its life even more modestly, and in a way that was more fraught: searching for reports of its original 2019 debut at Battersea’s Theatre 503, I found David Jays’ feature in The Guardian,
“Just as rehearsals are ending for J’Ouvert, a new play set at the Notting Hill Carnival, one of the three actors has dropped out, injured. There’s no slack in fringe theatre, and no understudies either. A new actor, Sapphire Joy, arrives on the penultimate day of rehearsals. An already tight process has been tightened. Things were tricky when I visited three days earlier – rehearsal was cancelled due to the injury and a bereavement. Yet a resolute team, headed by writer Yasmin Joseph and director Rebekah Murrell, keep their sights on making magic even as time and money are running out…. Days later, indisposition causes another actor to pull out. Even before the cast changed, losing one of 18 rehearsal days was significant. ‘I’d be lying if I said we’re exactly where I wanted to be,’ Murrell says. ‘We hoped by the end of the second week we’d have the skeleton of the show and the third would be colouring in, but – things happen’.”
But now, thanks to COVID, they’ve been given the opportunity (and resources) to complete the colouring in — and it has been accomplished with vivid, vibrant colours.
Obviously I can’t — and won’t — speak to the authenticity of it: as a middle-aged white man, I have not experienced what these young women of colour have. (Other critics have not been so self-limiting to acknowledge this. In The Stage, Natasha Tripney seems to think she’s entitled to speak personally for black experience, writing: “Joseph excels at conveying how it feels to move through the world as a woman of colour – your body policed by men, your confidence all too frequently knocked – as well as capturing the multifaceted nature of community: the white people who peer uneasily from windows, the woman who hesitates that little bit too long before inviting a child who has become separated from their parents into her home.”
What I can say, however, from my more limited prism is that the show FELT authentic, and the cast inhabit it with such joy and feeling, that I was swept away, just as the rest of the audience seemed to be, in the carnivalesque atmosphere.