These three enjoyable monologues have two things in common: a West London connection, and protagonists who are to a greater or lesser degree impacted by race. Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh, and Roy Williams’s Go, Girl, are set in Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush during the pandemic, though Covid is incidental to stories that are by turns uplifting and sobering. First up, though, is Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student, detailing Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi’s time in London from 1888-91, when he lodged in Baron’s Court.
There’s a long history of solo shows that fill in the backstory of a public figure, and this one is a model of its kind. Esh Alladi shows us the starry-eyed immigrant, eager to be trained in law by the colonial oppressor, and the beginnings of the disillusionment that created the future independence campaigner. The period detail is fascinating – who knew there was a vegetarian restaurant in Victorian Farringdon? – as is the revelation of the guilt Gandhi carries about his father’s death. But this genre can’t escape the whiff of the history lesson and Gupta’s play feels stiff in comparison to the modern stories.
Stephens’ play begins with Tom Mothersdale’s Jack, a teacher and young father, revisiting the past homes of his own recently deceased, alcoholic dad. It springs its surprises slowly. Jack’s wife Jennifer is black and his dad was a racist. As the rage of the Black Lives Matter movement grows under lockdown, Jennifer asks Jack what her skin colour really means to him, and Jack asks himself what a mixed heritage will mean for their son Adam. Stephens requires Mothersdale to turn in a split second from bumbling charm to discomfiting self-examination. He manages it with aplomb.
In Williams’s fictional twist on real events, Westfield security guard Donna (Ayesha Antoine) sang for Michelle Obama during a London school visit. That memory was tarnished by a friend, but Ayesha finds new validation through an act of heroism by her daughter. Go, Girl provokes the biggest belly-laughs of the three stories, thanks to Antoine’s sass and Williams’s sparky writing, and also some of the more chilling moments of the evening. All three stories are economically directed by Rachel O’Riordan and Diane Page on a stage bare apart from a giant, open-sided wooden staircase.
Relatively cheap and safe to mount, monologues became the default form for many theatres trying to make work under Covid restrictions. Now that things are – fingers crossed - opening up, I imagine creators as well as audiences yearn for dialogue, dispute, crowd scenes. But maybe we’ll look back on this as a golden era of the solo show. Auditioning drama students of the future will be spoilt for choice.
Until 24 July: lyric.co.uk