'J'Ouvert' is a soul-soaring, exhilarating piece of theatre
What an electrifying explosion of joy J'Ouvert is, incandescent with rich colour, fiery passion, and coruscating wit. It’s the debut play of Yasmin Joseph, first seen pre-Covid at the brilliant, future-forging fringe venue Theatre 503, then on TV as part of the BBC’s recent Lights Up strand, and now, triumphantly, storming the West End stage in Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season of new work. It’s not a perfect piece, but it displays the kind of fresh talent that makes theatregoing truly exciting. And the sheer ebullience of Rebekah Murrell’s production is enough to carry us over any bumps and potholes in the road, as it leads us through West London streets on Notting Hill Carnival weekend.
The title refers to the dawn celebration of street dancing and soca music that traditionally kicks off Caribbean carnival. J’ouvert has its roots in emancipation from slavery, and for all its ecstatic, rum-fuelled release, there is also turbulent history in Joseph’s drama, and deep divisions still run through the tightly packed, partying crowds. Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) feels her ancestors walk beside her as she flexes and struts, her costume aquiver with fuchsia feathers, longing to lose herself in the noise, the heat and the tunes, and to win the carnival crown. Her bestie Jade (Sapphire Joy) is by her side, but, reeling from the horror of the Grenfell fire, she’s haunted by her own ghosts.
She’s joined a grassroots activist group headed by Nisha (Annice Boparai), a plummy-voiced, privately educated young Asian woman – but their new friendship makes Nadine defensive and suspicious. And however free they all feel in their most rapturous moments, as the beats and the euphoria lift them out of their ordinary lives, they know they’re still being judged: by the boys who grope them and won’t take no for an answer, by Nadine’s disapproving, churchgoing auntie, by the wealthy white residents who watch through cracks from inside their multi-million pound, boarded-up houses.
Joseph’s dialogue, written in a rhythmic poetry, captures the chaos of it all, and DJ Zuyane Russell supplies a body-winding, hip-grinding soundtrack throughout. The set, by Sandra Falase in collaboration with Chloe Lamford, pitches a tilted concrete disc, steel scaffold, traffic cones and street signs against showers of glitter, paradisiacal plumage and lurid carnival masks. It’s grubby and glorious – but there’s a thread of danger and tension throughout, like a trail of gunpowder that could at any moment ignite.
Gentrification and commercialisation are nudging the carnival further and further from its origins. Male entitlement to female bodies, and white fetishisation and appropriation of Black culture hang in the charged air: for these young women, this is a party that reasserts the right to be seen, to take up space, and to belong. Brooks and Joy are both magnificent, whether they’re our central pair of old mates, assorted lairy lads, or a couple of Windrush-generation patriarchs reflecting on their youth back in the 1950s, when race riots ripped through Notting Hill, and journalist and activist Claudia Jones – whose spirit appears, at key, frenzied moments, as an inspirational vision before Nadine’s dazed eyes – pioneered London’s carnival.
There are some ideas left dangling, and the writer’s narrative route is slightly circuitous – but every step of the journey is so vibrant that we don’t much mind. This is soul-soaring theatre, charged with a sense of ritual and legacy that give it an elemental power: exhilarating.
Photo credit: J'Ouvert at Harold Pinter Theatre (Photo by Helen Murray)