Two calypsonians companionably sit soaking up the Trinidadian sunshine, as the sound of the ocean’s tide rolling in and out is laced with chiming bird song. Exchanging melodies, swigs of rum and tastes of Rosie’s roti, calypso singer Professor and his protégé Slim spend their existence in a small hut on the shores of Trinidad.
This idyllic snapshot of Caribbean life is the first we are treated to in Talawa Theatre Company’s latest production of Mustapha Matura’s Rum and Coca Cola (first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1976). But does Rum and Coca Cola venture the audience much beyond the voyeurism of a tourist’s blank gaze? We certainly start out in this role, with Slim and Professor performing directly to the Courtyard stalls at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
In khaki and a tropical blue shirt, a yellow cap sat back to front on his braided head, Marcel McCalla plays young Slim with a lilting accent and a bouncing step, aptly capturing the effervescent aspiration of a man on the cusp of great things. Victor Romero Evans is a stoop-backed, eccentric ex-calypso king, creating a beat with nothing more than the tap of his shuffling, sandal-clad foot.
The relationship that plays out before us is an endearing one, charted from the pair’s easy silence together as the audience enter the auditorium; through Slim’s rapt face and eager eyes as the Professor holds forth like a born raconteur; their quibbling over the construction of a potentially winning song; through to their fraught exchange of hurt and disappointment as the slow punch of the play’s denouement approaches.
In a mesmerising scene, we see a calypso take shape, from its inception - as Professor counsels Slim, a local politician’s affair is a ripe topic for satire - to its fine-tuning. Unexpected shafts of lyrical dialogue are a delight, contrasting with the swift flow of exchange between Slim and Professor, creating a rich dynamic between the sung and spoken lines.
Their US neighbours are both salvation and stricture, as pigeonholed into tourist attractions, Slim and Professor perform for petty cash on the beaches and in the bars of Trinidad. But there is hope, Matura seems to say, in the rich musical “tradition” that as Professor notes so robustly in one of his many idiosyncratic lectures to Slim, is found in the calypso. A vibrant facet of Caribbean heritage, calypsos are like the “newspapers” of the islands, not only reporting the gossip but crucially providing an outlet for political dissent, challenging “all the big shot politicians”.
Vitally, musical director Dominique Le Gendre’s choices elicit a rippling wave of tangible enjoyment from the audience, whether the calypsos sung onstage are recognised or not. A slice of West Indian sunshine beams from every note of the cuatro that Slim plays, Marcel McCalla proving himself a deft musician as well as a fine actor. We are treated to the sweet harmonising of youthful timbre with Victor Romero Evans’ deep tones, on calypso tunes like the title “Rum and Coca Cola”, as well as favourites “Mary Ann” and “Mathilda”, which are in some places subtly updated with modern references.
Anthony Lamble’s Rothko-like, deep blue backdrop with the cool outline of green leaves and a black circle of sun, suggestive of the intense Antillean heat, complements the central set piece, a driftwood structure that is the rough beach hut Professor and Slim claim as their home.
Though overtly a gentle, comic piece, Matura’s play is rife with the numerous undertones of postcolonial discourse, which first-time director Don Warrington (who many will be familiar with recently for his appearance on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, alongside his extensive acting career) handles with finesse: dissatisfaction, hierarchical tensions, and the question of Caribbean identity all subtly flavour the piece. It is with these elements that the audience finally advances beyond the tourist’s perspective, catching a glimpse of the true impact a life lived second-best – whether, in the wider sense to the USA, or to Professor’s calypso rival - can have. Characteristically for Rum and Coca Cola, we are left in optimistic suspense, unsure of the future along with the calypsonians themselves.
In an accomplished directorial debut, Warrington presents a funny, free-flowing production that takes its own sweet time (in a good way).