As the audience takes their seats, a thumping, pulsing beat sets the tone for the carnival that is about explode onto the Nottingham Theatre Royal stage. Front and centre, on an inclining, revolving stage, Nadine (Gabriella Brooks) stands proudly, gyrating her body to the rhythm under a solid red light which not only throws the character into an unnerving spotlight but also highlights the disorganised hanging backdrop comprised of items an audience would associate with a carnival: masks, diversion signs, feathers and cones. “Do you feel free?”, Nadine repeats, getting louder and louder with each iteration, almost breaking the fourth wall and demanding a response as each individual audience member is drawn into the emerging street party on the stage.
The importance of heritage, freedom of self, of expression, of past, of present and of future are to become major themes of Yasmin Joseph’s debut play as Nadine, Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nisha (Annice Boparai) take the audience on a journey from J’ouvert (the official beginning of the carnival) to the end of the festivities.
The two main cast members, Brooks and Joy, exude energy and vibrancy throughout their time on stage. The highly accomplished actresses are seamlessly able to flit between poetic monologue and dialogue to more natural speech patterns as they move from exposition to everyday conversation. There is a warmth between the actresses that adds to their delivery of two young black women who want to make a difference in their community. Loud, infectious music punctuates their speech and dialogue and the actresses respond by shaping and forming their bodies, almost in an act of worship; while the music pulses. The actresses are never still as the music permeates them, body and soul.
Joseph creates two very different female characters to demonstrate that finding your place and forging your own path is an individual experience, but can’t be achieved alone. While Nadine wishes to become a Dancing Queen and follow in the footsteps of her heroine, Claudia Jones, an activist and a founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, Jade wishes to be more outspoken about justice, female rights and respect for each other. Despite the colour, the glitter and the joy of the carnival, Joseph also shows us a more disturbing side, one where two young women are slut shamed for wearing revealing clothing; where another is touched without her permission and where men wish to hurt in retaliation for a supposed humiliation when they are rejected. The contrast here is profound, made all the more menacing because the roles of the men are also played by Brooks and Joy who portray both aggressor and victim with impressive split-second transition between characterisation.
The transitions in this production are seamless, not just with regards to the characters, but also with scene changes, shifts in ambience and transportations between the literal carnival and the more celestial world belonging to female carnival ancestors who guide Nadine’s path. While the scenes depicting Claudia Jones and Nadia on an ethereal plane are effective in that they demonstrate the undeniable talents of stage, lighting and sound design, plus allowing for moments of quiet reflection within the bustle of the carnival, the scenes are less effective in execution. It is the opinion of this reviewer that the physical recreation of Claudia Jones is not needed and perhaps simple voice-over would have been more effective in emphasising how the voices of the past can influence the present.
The lighting design by Simisola Majekodunmi and sound design by Beth Duke work in complete harmony together and this synchronisation makes the transitions even more profound. Block lighting of reds and yellows highlight the warmth of the carnival, whereas blues and greens are used to denote something a little more mystical. Loud booming music is juxtaposed with moments of calm reflection and one of the more poignant moments of the production is the silence (onstage and offstage) and stillness as a mark of respect to the victims of the Grenfell disaster.
In her professional directing debut, Rebekah Murrell has successfully created a wonderfully busy and eventful carnival with minimal props, three actresses and a DJ. Where the stage is physically bare for the majority of the performance, it is filled with pulsing movement, confetti cannons and powerful portrayals of female solidarity. The actresses not only use the stage to recreate the party atmosphere, they look far into the distance back of the auditorium to converse with other characters to suggest the expanse of the carnival or shout up to people who had separated themselves from carnival but were observing from a distance from the comfort of their homes. This suggested a of the gentrification of the area, to add an element of anger at their culture being disregarded and ousted. Watching the actresses clump together on a bare stage in fear of losing each other is very effective in creating a crowded scene on an almost empty stage.
Humour in words, tone and action runs throughout the play and the audience are only too happy to laugh loudly, whoop and wave their hands in the air; the audience is an integral part of bringing this production to life and it is obvious that the actresses are enjoying this response and wanting more. The most heart-warming moments of the production are when the characters overcome obstacles to show unity. Boparai’s Nisha is something of an outsider in the close friendship of Nadine and Jade, and yet there is an understanding and acceptance. Brooks and Joy’s portrayal of two elderly Caribbean men, who have a lot to say, was a joy to behold, and the bond that is established between Nisha and these two men, of a completely different culture and time, is uplifting. Boparai portrays Nisha with a cheerleader-like positivity with hope for a better future for everyone, a sentiment that the audience is completely on board with.
At the end of this thought-provoking, raw and emotional play, Jade takes the mic and passionately informs the audience that “carnival is community”, and this reviewer certainly took the spirit of togetherness, hope and the strength of female relationships home with her tonight.
J’Ouvert continues at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 24th July