In J’Ouvert, London’s Notting Hill Carnival has been brought to life on the West End stage with an impressive cast of four women. Yasmin Joseph’s show meaningfully captures the reality of the carnival experience in twenty-first century London whilst remaining undeniably fun. Under the direction of Rebekah Murrell, it bursts with colour, music and joy; it’s easily the most fun I’ve had in the West End in a long time.
It’s 2017 and Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) is competing in the carnival dancing competition, Face of the Fête. She sports a tight pink lycra bodysuit with matching shorts. Upon her beautifully braided hair is a jewelled headband which sits like a crown. To complete her outfit, she wears phoenix-like indigo-coloured wings. If she wins the competition, she’d become one of the first dark-skinned Black women to feature on the cover of Island Vogue magazine plus win an all-expenses paid trip to St Lucia. Jade (Sapphire Joy) provides unwavering support as Nadine’s best friend and plans to make waves of her own during the day as a member of the West London Rising activist group.
The beautiful friendship between these female carnival-goers is at the heart of the show at it’s from their lens that the audience is invited to witness all the various shades and colours of the event: from the energetic head-turning dance moves; being squeezed into crowds; getting lost; paying for overpriced food; the creeping gentrification into an event that’s open to everyone.
The music, helmed by DJ Zuyane Russell, excites and brings you directly into the carnival mood. For audiences who have been deprived of all things resembling a party for a year and a half, it was spirit-lifting to vibe to the upbeat music in a communal setting.
In showcasing all that the carnival has to offer, the writing skilfully weaves in moments which expose the ugly misogyny from older aunties as well as flirtatious men. In an arena which gives women the space to exert their power and confidence, Nadine is still held back and cowers when she spots her older aunty in the crowd. She knows that her elder will spread gossip about her being ‘promiscuous’ just for dancing and wearing certain clothing. We also witness the way in which flirting from certain men can quickly escalate from flattery to consistent harassment. For all the street smarts and grit which Nadine and Jade share, it’s telling that they both strive to keep quiet when confronted by men rather than say something that might provoke them.
Brooks and Joy are versatile performers for their abilities to shape-shift into the other characters in the show with apparent ease. A highlight being their convincing portrayals of two older men selling flags by the side of the road.
I was confused by the inclusion of Jade’s well-meaning yet irritating ‘woke’ friend Nisha (Annice Boparai) who would make consistently grating comments about activism which she treated as a school project. I was slightly drawn into the heated conflict which builds between Nadine and Jade in which Nadine is forced to assert her stance on the meaning of the carnival and what competitions like the Face of the Fête stand for. But for the most part, I’m not sure whether Nisha’s character brought much to the overall show.
One element that I wish I was able immerse in a bit more was the legacy of the women who appear to Nadine in ghost form. At unexpected moments, these female spirits would spur Nadine to find the courage to continue dancing. But I left feeling uncertain as to who these women were meant to be and the connection between their history and the carnival.
But these are minor gripes on a brilliant piece which showcases the landmark event that is Notting Hill Carnival. It blends together its fun and celebratory aspects as well as its significance from a cultural perspective. After seeing a show like this, I can’t help but think what an exciting place the West End theatre scene would be if more venues committed to staging more engaging experiences of this calibre.
Photo Credit: Helen Murray
J’Ouvert is running at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 3 July at the time of writing.