Two young black women cut a cross section through the Notting Hill Carnival’s opening day in Yasmin Joseph’s rackety, exuberant blend of comedy, social commentary and lewd pelvic gyration. A celebration of an event pivotal to black British history – which, for the second time since 1966 will take place online this year – J’Ouvert also raises questions of identity and cultural ownership. Mostly, though, it’s a tremendously enjoyable, raucous evening from a four-strong female cast with two gutsy, energetic central performances.
Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) wants to win a Soca dance competition and a magazine cover shoot, despite her conservative family’s objections; Jade (Sapphire Joy) wants to address the gentrification of W11. Though dressed throughout in pink lycra and feathers, the two also play a string of male characters, from cheeky ragamuffin kids to leery rude boys to teeth-sucking Caribbean grandads. Though Rebekah Murrell’s production often looks unfocused it’s clearly built around comical or reflective breathing spaces for the actresses between exhausting dance routines.
The history of Carnival is crudely shoehorned into the action, not least by the appearances of its founder Claudia Jones as an exhorting spectre. Far more effective are the moment’s silence as the characters remember the 72 locals who died in Grenfell Tower, and a touching tribute to Kelso Cochrane, stabbed to death by white men in Ladbroke Grove in 1959. The whole thing is simply staged on a giant, tilted speaker cone with Zuyane Russell spinning some excellent tunes from a sound system on a scaffold behind.
The question repeatedly raised is what, and who, Carnival is for. Is it a joyful celebration or a political act? Whom does it belong to? Nadine, who’s from Herne Hill, feels greater ownership of these streets than Jade’s friend Nisha (Annice Boparai) who’s gay, Asian, rich and lives in Holland Park. Jade believes the economic ethnic cleansing of the area can be resisted: Nadine’s political activism extends to weeing on white homeowners’ doorsteps.
Overlaying this, though, is a lovely portrayal of complicated, supportive, occasionally fractious female friendship. Boparai’s Nisha is deployed mainly for mocking comic effect, but Nadine and Jade feel like a fully formed combination of affection and exasperation. The wishful optimism of their you-go-girl affirmation is duly challenged by an outbreak of male aggression.
The second show in producer Sonia Friedman’s Re: Emerge season at the Pinter, J’Ouvert was first produced at South London powerhouse Theatre 503 in 2019. It retains a scrappy, fringe-y air, but it’s more than the sum of its parts. Putting four young women of colour and the politics of carnival on a West End stage makes a statement about where we could and should be going as London theatre slowly returns to strength.
Harold Pinter Theatre to July 3, atgtickets.com