Review: The Princess and the Hustler (Bristol Old Vic)
Chinonyerem Odimba's new play looks at a remarkable moment in Bristol's history
Eclipse Theatre's movement to stage the 'largest ever delivery of Black British stories' is without doubt a brilliant thing. Beginning with Black Men Walking, which toured last year and ran at the Royal Court, the initiative tells real stories, the likes of which are not heard enough on our stages – or elsewhere for that matter.
This second offering uncovers a significant moment in UK race relations and the black British Civil Rights movement which played out in Bristol. It's an event I'd wager most people will have never heard of – the Bristol bus boycott of 1963, where people began to rise up against the refusal of the bus company to employ black or Asian bus crews in the city. The protest drew national attention and it also succeeded.
The story of this boycott alone would be enough for one play, but playwright Chinonyerem Odimba posits it almost as a backdrop to the story of a black family in Bristol, going through their own troubles – the wayward father (the hustler of the title) has returned, complete with another child in tow; the daughter of the family (the eponymous Princess) is the subject of racist bullying at school; the mother, Mavis, is struggling to make ends meet and Mavis' own politics are at odds with those of her friend and neighbour, the working class white Bristolian Margot.
Essentially, there's a lot – a lot – happening in this play. All of the threads of the story, which shine much-needed lights on so many aspects of black British history, are intriguing and relevant. But shoved all together they clamour for space and ultimately drown each other out. It's hard to work out whether this is really a play about the bus boycott, or people coming together regardless of race, or the struggle black families faced in the 60s, or the damaging and lasting impact of being the subject of sustained racist abuse as a child. It could even be a play about all of these things, but as it is, it doesn't land properly on any of them.
That said, Dawn Walton's upbeat production manages to take us through all this busyness well, ensuring we are engaged throughout. Simon Kenny's warm, 60s designs – mainly drapes and curtains that are drawn back and forward to become different rooms and flats – are also very nice. The cast turn out strong performances, especially Fode Simbo as Wendell Junior, Donna Berlin as Mavis and Seun Shote as Wendell. The performances of the ten year old girls – from Emily Burnett and Kudzai Sitima – are a little jarring, however – it seems to be a perennially difficult thing for adults to play children and it just doesn't quite work here.
One of the main strands of the play – about Princess' desperation to take part in the Weston-Super-Mare beauty pageant – is a brilliant, knotty thread within it. But there's so much that could have been explored in this element alone that it feels like a real missed opportunity. It only really glides quietly along in the background of the piece.