'A Strange Loop' review – this queer, Black musical is a winning combination of experimental and authentic

Read our four-star review of the multi-award-winning musical A Strange Loop, starring Kyle Ramar Freeman, now in performances at the Barbican to 9 September.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Never before have I heard the words “There will be butt f---ing!” yelled from the Barbican stage. But then there are plenty of firsts in A Strange Loop, Michael R. Jackson’s 2019 Tony and Pulitzer-winning musical, which ploughs through the traditional boundaries of theatre like a particularly fabulous steamroller. It’s shocking, it’s joyful, and it’s surprisingly heartrending.

A Strange Loop revolves around Usher, who is an actual usher for Broadway’s The Lion King. But his real passion is writing, and here’s where we enter the metafictional spiral: Usher is a self-described fat, Black, queer man writing a show about a fat, Black, queer man who is a writing a show about… Well, you get it. The titular term was coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter and used in a song by Liz Phair.

Usher, an endearingly vulnerable 25-year-old, is constantly interrupted by his Thoughts, played by the phenomenally versatile six-person ensemble. These include a daily blast from Self-Loathing and fretful reminders from his Supervisor of Sexual Ambivalence. He is also tormented by calls from his devoutly religious parents, who demand to know why he isn’t more successful and who disapprove of his “lifestyle.”

In this semi-autobiographical show, Jackson pushes into terrain that's rare on our stages, including a frank depiction of the harshly judgemental gay dating scene, a masochistic one-night stand that involves the language of slavery, and confrontational discussions around AIDS and the use of the N-word.

There are also very specific references that may well fly over the heads of most audience members – particularly British ones – such as a long riff on Black filmmaker Tyler Perry. Usher is offered a job ghostwriting for Perry, but his fears of selling out are manifested by visits from figures accusing him of being a “race traitor,” among them Harriet Tubman, Whitney Houston, and a chained man representing 12 Years A Slave clutching an Oscar.

Jackson’s formally daring, constantly disorienting show also features a parody of the gospel play that Usher’s mother wants him to create (and which includes a fantastic set reveal by designer Arnulfo Maldonado), and a painful rug-pull after Usher seems to make a connection with someone. That variety is reflected in a score that mixes bouncy pop and Broadway with gospel and jazz.

The ensemble weighs in with script notes as the “show” evolves. “No one cares about a writer who’s struggling to write,” quips one, anticipating critiques of A Strange Loop. There’s also savvy commentary on the subjects that Black artists are expected to focus on (slavery, police violence), and the industry’s conventional gatekeepers (“I’m the chair of the Second Coming of Sondheim Award!”).

Stephen Brackett’s vibrant production makes great use of the coloured lights framing the stage (by Jen Schriever) to switch mood, plus expressive movement from Raja Feather Kelly. However, it does feel long at almost two hours straight through. Given how much is coming at you, an interval would really be welcome. I also missed some of Jackson’s intricate lyrics in the muddy sound mix.

Kyle Ramar Freeman, who understudied the lead role on Broadway, plays Usher with an incredible full-throttle commitment. He’s on stage throughout, zipping between Usher’s gentle dismay and his moments of anguish or rage, from fast-paced farcical scenes to quiet introspective ones featuring soaring solos; Freeman has a terrific voice, too.

He’s brilliantly supported by Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliott, Sharlene Hector, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, and Yeukayi Ushe. Often they play one character together (all wearing dressing gowns and waving fried chicken legs around as Usher’s voluble mother), cleverly teasing out different aspects, or they split up to inhabit a doctor, agent, or theatregoer – the latter defending her love of Lion King and Wicked.

There may well be some who adhere more to those shows than A Strange Loop, which is sometimes bewildering. But then I was very aware that it wasn’t capturing my own experience, which – god knows – is represented more than enough onstage. There will be many Black, queer audience members who find this a revelation: long-overdue programming progress.

Even so, there are definitely universal themes here as well. We can all sympathise with career challenges, with struggles to believe in ourselves or to get our families on board with our dreams, and with the gulf between a sincere desire to change and actually making that leap. The emphasis on mental health feels firmly contemporary.

Oddly for such a knowing, meta show, it really does fulfil Usher’s desire to show real life – to place you in his lived experience. The experimental zaniness, the candid content, and the taboo busting are all excitingly bold, but it’s that authenticity which ultimately makes the most impact.

A Strange Loop is at the Barbican through 9 September. Book A Strange Loop tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: A Strange Loop. (Photo by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

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