'Passing Strange' review – Giles Terera is a total rock star in this beguiling musical odyssey

Read our review of the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange, now in performances at the Young Vic to 6 July.

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Back in 2008, musician Stew rocked Broadway with his semi-autobiographical gig-theatre piece Passing Strange – and, though he won a Tony for Best Book, Broadway wasn’t quite ready for it. Actually, this form-busting show is still a distinctly singular experience, but surrender to its idiosyncratic rhythms and it’s a soulful, rich, witty wonder.

Giles Terera plays the narrating Stew figure, an African-American artist looking back at the picaresque journey his younger self (“Youth” played by Keenan Munn-Francis) took – from his childhood in South Central LA, in the late 1970s, through discovering music in the church choir and then a teen punk band, and finally exploring bohemian Europe.

That sounds earnest, but Passing Strange is properly funny. There’s the spry meta script (which Stew collaborated on with Heidi Rodewald), boldly subverting genre expectations. For example, when Youth prepares to leave town, Terera quips “At this point in the play, we were planning a show tune”, before adding “We don’t know how to write those kinds of tunes.”

There’s fond parodying of that adolescent fervour for changing for world and belief in your own genius, and hilarious spoofs of everything from avant-garde cinema to Amsterdam’s liberated culture (plus weed) and Berlin’s postmodern performance art scene (plus speed). It’s packed with gags, like the Dutch philosophy professor/sex worker who declares “I fuck, therefore I am.”

However, there’s also a thought-provoking depiction of Youth trying to fit in – hence that “passing” title. At one point he “passes for ghetto”, pretending he lived on the mean streets instead of enjoying a middle-class upbringing, in order to impress his anarchist comrades. But he can’t be himself at home either.

When he does feel seen, and accepted, it’s like a lightning bolt. The standout sequence sees a Dutch girl invite him to stay and give him the keys to her flat, no questions asked. “She told me I was all right,” marvels Youth, and that leads into glorious surge of music – a heart-pounding revelation in song.

Stew fascinatingly weaves together different styles (rock, soul, gospel, punk, blues, folk) and forms, from brief comic numbers, as when Youth loses his virginity, through to meandering musings. Some occasionally try the patience, and the second half needs trimming, but it’s generally a beguiling watch.

Passing Strange - LT - 1200

Terera is a total rock star in a role that could have been tailor-made for him. He gets to use his beautiful crisp diction and intelligent line readings (which won him his Olivier for Hamilton) for the narration, and also draw on his past experience as a musician to play the guitar brilliantly and treat us to a smashing drum solo.

Fantastic too is Munn-Francis as the endearing but self-obsessed Youth, who chucks in some bravura tap dancing, but also sells the complex relationship with his single mother (an affecting Rachel Adedeji) that forms the backbone of the show.

The phenomenal supporting cast (Renée Lamb, Nadia Violet Johnson, David Albury and Caleb Roberts) give new meaning to multi-roling, whizzing between a closeted reverend’s son, a stoned teen having a freakout, and a Marxist revolutionary – all while supplying superb vocals and livewire physical comedy.

Excellent too are the onstage three-piece band. However, they sometimes overpower the singing, and it’s a shame to miss out on poetic gems such as “I finally found home / Between the clicks of the metronome.”

But the bold choices in Liesl Tommy’s electrifying production – whether submerging the stage in a blur of haze and strobe lights, or using woozy video – make the show feel organic, raw, unpredictable and cool. This is an odyssey where the journey is just as satisfying as the destination.

Passing Strange is at the Young Vic through 6 July. Book Passing Strange tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Passing Strange (Photos by Marc Brenner)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

  • Get early access to tickets for the newest shows
  • Access to exclusive deals and promotions
  • Stay in the know about news in the West End
  • Get updates on shows that are important to you

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy