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The most astonishing thing about
Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play Choir Boy - presented by the Royal Court in a co-production with the Manhattan Theatre Club, where it's due next year - is the casting.
The students at an all-boys, all-black American prep school are played by five remarkable unknowns who sing like the Platters and act like hardened veterans. Director
Dominic Cooke has struck more gold for England at the end of our Olympic summer.
Their choir leader,
Dominic Smith (whose one credit is the UK and European tour of Thriller), even resembles a strange mixture of Dionne Warwick and Michelle Obama in a maroon blazer, an accident he turns to stunning advantage as Pharus Young, staving off rivals and discovering his sexuality in the school's fiftieth anniversary year.
Smith pouts and flaps his wrists, glares and simpers, but also radiates charisma like one of the
Dreamgirls on the poster he pins lovingly above his bed. McCraney's play feels autobiographical, and joins a roster of smart and sassy Court school plays raging from Barry Reckord's Skyvers right through to E V Crowe's Kin.
But this is the American version of peer group pressure, showdowns with the Headmaster (an ebullient, powerful
Gary McDonald), punch-ups in the locker room and tentative, emotional physicality after lights out. The play's momentum is towards the anniversary Commencement ceremony, as the teenaged boys jostle for position and move on in gowns and mortar boards.
And the glue is the music, ranging from school hymns and anthems to a more profound investigation of spirituals and gospel. It's all thrillingly well sung, fuelled by the boys' own internal antagonisms and the goading of a semi-retired old white teacher (beautifully played by “ the glue is the music, ranging from school hymns and anthems to a more profound investigation of spirituals and gospel ” David Burke) who returns to instruct them in "creative thinking" and straighten out their adolescent racism.
At first the play feels under-populated on
Ultz's wrap-around design of panelled walls, locker room tiles and cupboards, school crests and Pharus's bedroom.
But the skilful, muscular writing - which incidentally marks a great return to form by McCraney after his dismal
Wig Out! for this theatre - expands along with the performances, and the actors hop among the audience to pick up a bass line or rap out a riposte.
Pharus's rite of passage drags the others in his wake, and they all have their moments:
Eric Kofi Abrefa as Pharus's chief rival and the headmaster's nephew; Khali Best and Kwayedza Kureya as much more than backing singers; and Aron Julius - who's studying for his A-levels - as a touchingly inflected room-mate.
Photo (Simon Kane): Kwayedza Kureya (Junior Davis), Khali Best (Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James), Dominic Smith (Pharus Jonathan Young) & Aron Julius (David Heard)