There’s no disguising the imminence of the next General Election. In the theatre, no less than in tv and radio, we’re going to be awash in it. First into the traces however comes Juliet Gilkes Romero with Upper Cut at the southbank’s `other’ national theatre, Southwark Playhouse at Elephant & Castle.
Southwark Playhouse never cease to intrigue and divert with the variety of their programme. And Gilkes Romero’s take on politics – under-representation – is no exception.
Gilkes Romero has a solid string of award-winning work behind her: At the Gates of Gaza that looked at British West Indian sacrifice in WW1 that went on to win the Writers Guild Best Play award in 2009 and Razing Cane that was short-listed for the prestigious Alfred Fagon award in 2013.
Upper Cut poses a similar question to that Gilkes Romero has explored in previous plays: racism’s part in the betrayal of ideals.
In 2012, Karen and Michael, two young Labour activists (Emma Dennis-Edwards and Akemnji Ndifornyen and shamefully again, no biogs available for them in the published playtext!) are parting company. Michael has made it to Deputy-Leader of the party, Karen has been through various phases, from expulsion to rehabilitation. But she’s had enough of British politics and looking across the pond, sees Obama’s economic initiatives for Afro-Americans as a sharper way forward.
In a series of lengthy flashbacks, matched by director Lotte Wakeman with a musical rewind through the history of `black’ popular music, Gilkes Romero attempts to show how Karen’s own personal initiative has been thwarted and undermined at every turn by political expediency.
Compromise is the name of the game, Andrew Scarborough’s cynical Labour strategist, Barry, keeps on reminding Karen when her internationalist view begins to change after a fire in which twelve young black teenagers die and she starts calling for `black sections’ within the LP.
Clearly based on real chronologies (the Deptford Fire of 1981, Neil Kinnock’s battle with Labour’s `militant tendency’ in the 1980s), Karen grows more radical with time, Michael cuts his cloth more moderately. The upshot is career success for the latter, isolation for the former.
Whilst Gilkes Romero, a journalist in a former life, makes her points well and her research is clearly assiduous, neither in the end work towards an effective, emotionally driven drama. Whilst Kinnock, the Labour Party and spin-doctors hardly come out of it well, Karen and Michael seldom sound like real people, more polemical mouth-pieces with the exception of one scene – Karen’s address to the local community after the fire. Then both actor, dialogue and issue coalesce; the words fly off the stage. For a moment Upper Cut becomes passionate, persuasive and engaged.
But the moment is not sustained which is a real disappointment because Upper Cut’s subject couldn’t be more timely or pertinent with ethnic minority representation in Parliament still woefully low.
The cast too can be seen working hard matching costume and hair style to fashion changes over the past twenty-five years – every other scene a discarding of one woolly jumper for a larger, fuller wig.
A play that might have provoked a sense of outrage instead becomes useful as informative history but it could have been so much more.
First published in londongrip in January 2015