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Playboy of the West Indies at Birmingham Rep – review

The world premiere musical adaptation runs until 2 July

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Gleanne Purcell-Brown, McCallam Connell and Durone Stokes in Playboy of the West Indies
© Geraint Lewis

Mustapha Matura's 1984 comedy Playboy of the West Indies is given a new lease of life in this musical production premiered at Birmingham Rep.

Based on J M Synge's Playboy of the Western World, Matura moved the story from Ireland to the Caribbean island of Trinidad. When Ken arrives in the sleepy beachside village of Mayaro claiming to be on the run after killing his father, the locals take him to their hearts. He is soon the most popular guy in town but when another stranger appears with a different story, the tales begin to unravel.

Directors Clement Ishmael, Nicolas Kent and Dominique Le Gendre were originally working with Matura on the musical before the sudden death of the writer in 2019. And there is a real sense they have stayed true to his original intentions with this production, keeping Trinidad and comedy at its heart.

Adapting the play into a musical gives many of the actors additional space to flesh out their roles and develop the characterisation. Giggling schoolgirls can dance in the streets and drunken men can stagger around the rum bar clinking their glasses. Composed by Ishmael and Le Gendre, the music, played by a live band, suffuses the show with Caribbean calypso and makes you want to shuffle your feet.

The role of Ken is not an easy one. Here is someone claiming to be a murderer and yet has to be so likeable that the entire village falls at his feet – especially the women. Durone Stokes' Ken is humble rather than boastful and shy rather than ostentatious but it is his story which draws them in. He is also a romantic at heart, believing he has found true love in Peggy who runs the local rum shop with her father Mikey.

Gleanne Purcell-Brown has great comic timing as Peggy, hurling insults and one-liners at those around her with disdain as she wipes the tables and washes the glasses. Initially, we believe she is immune to charm but we see a tenderness behind that prickly exterior when she falls for Ken.

There is a blend of humour with an underlying menace in Angela Wynter's Mama Benin. Sashaying into the rum shop with her brightly coloured full skirts and turban, she plants her feet, juts out her lip and argues her corner. But when she is alone, she weaves her magic, and we see there is more to this village matriarch than first appears.

Designed by Michael Taylor, the set takes us into the rum shop where Peggy's serving counter is a visible defence against the world. Standing behind it, she can dismiss all suitors and nonsense but it is when she steps out from behind that barrier that she reveals her vulnerability.

Produced by Birmingham Rep and Nick of Time, Playboy of the West Indies - The Musical forms part of Birmingham 2022 Festival, a summer-long series of arts events celebrating the Commonwealth Games coming to the city in July and August.

As part of a festival exploring the Commonwealth, the production team has ensured the show is firmly grounded in Trinidad not only in the music but also in the diction and accents.

Matura may not have lived to see his dream of turning his play into a musical become a reality, but the creatives and the cast have done him proud with a joyful comedy packed full of life, vitality and Caribbean sunshine.