'Out West' at Lyric Hammersmith is 'one of the most exciting surprises of the year'
Three world premieres assembled under a single title, Out West looks set to be one of the most exciting surprises of the year: a portmanteau evening of monologues each of which acknowledges the area of west London where the Lyric Hammersmith itself is set while providing a rich array of performance opportunities that are seized, and then some, by their expert casts.
Although strikingly different on the surface, the plays all confront familial and social dynamics to varying degrees. Tanika Gupta's The Overseas Student finds the charismatic Esh Alladi as the young Mohandas K Gandhi who has arrived from India to London age 18 to embark upon legal study in the capital. Enthralled by his new home, he rejoices in theatre visits to Ellen Terry and Henry Irving in As You Like It and notes the haste of London and its citizenry and the apparent health of its horses. (Sartorial appurtenances like leather gloves are quite nice, too.)
Sure, the food isn't always to this young visionary's taste: he's given kidney and boiled beef where he would prefer rice and mangoes, and he more than once voices a yearning for his mum back home. But as his three years in London continue, the Mahatma Gandhi of legend-to-come soon finds himself confronting issues of nationalism and class that would appear to catch him somewhat unawares, as does his attraction to the same female gender from whom he has (unsuccessfully) vowed abstinence earlier on. Alladi comes at the part with buckets of charm and personality in a would-be history lesson that its performer, and two adroit co-directors in Diane Page and Rachel O'Riordan, keep commendably light on its feet.
After the interval come two contrastingly contemporary narratives, both of which avoid any sense of these one-acts having been written on assignment, so to speak, that can sometimes bedevil such collective theatrical ventures. Tony winner Simon Stephens's intriguingly titled Blue Water and Cold and Fresh casts the ever-expert Tom Mothersdale as Jack, a history teacher whom we encounter during lockdown. Ambling genially on to a stage marked out by only by designer Soutra Gilmour's open-sided staircase of a set, Jack relates both the courtship of his partner, Jennifer, with whom he has a two-year-old son called Adam, and the reckoning he has been forced to make with his late father, whose behaviour, as recounted here, delivers a blow to the gut.
Complicating things further is the fact that Jennifer is Black and so has abiding questions as to the nature of Jack's attraction towards her that have only heightened in intensity during this era of Black Lives Matter. Through it all, Mothersdale calibrates the subtlest shifts in mood and feeling with thrilling exactitude, at no point more so than in a powerfully articulated final passage where Jack posits a world beyond judgment where his son can exist free from the fury and prejudice that have rattled Jack to his soul.
Roy Williams's sparky, lively Go, Girl casts the galvanic Ayesha Antoine as Donna, a security guard at the area's nearby Westfield mall who was once visited at her school by none other than Michelle Obama. Since that time, Donna has herself had a daughter, Tiana, now 14, to whom Donna gave birth when she was only 16. Revelling in the furlough that has helped keep her going during the pandemic, Donna prepares to do verbal battle with this lippy teenager only to be encounter a life-saving gesture of heroism from her daughter that prompts the exhortation of the title. In contrast with the Stephens play before it, Williams (co-author of last year's memorable Death of England duo of plays for the National) reminds us that kindness can occur when least expected, even if ugliness is often seen to cast a longer shadow. You feel as if each of these plays contains even more than their allotted time permits and emerge from the Lyric ready not just to take in the neighbourhood anew but also that little bit wiser about the world.
Photo credit: Ayesha Antoine, Tom Mothersdale and Esh Alladi in Out West (Photos by Helen Maybanks)
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