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Review: Leave to Remain (Lyric Hammersmith)

Tyrone Huntley and Billy Cullum star in Kele Okereke's new musical

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Tyrone Huntley as Obi and Billy Cullum as Alex in Leave to Remain
© Helen Maybanks

There's a good and much shorter show struggling to emerge from this musical by Kele Okereke, the lead singer with Bloc Party, and his friend Matt Jones, a TV screenwriter.

Its opening few scenes take the breath away as Obi and Alex meet, dance, go to an art gallery, fall in love and move into together all in fluid, graceful scenes directed and choreographed by Robby Graham. Rebecca Brower's flexible, atmospheric set is whisked on and off as part of a dance routine, conjuring many places with minimal effort and maximum effect; the soundtrack, led by Chrio Blake's onstage guitarist, throbs and surges with its mix of West African high-life and electronic dance sounds.

It seems at once entrancing and original. But then the plot kicks in, the songs get repetitive and lyrically dull, and the entire affair just loses energy and panache, like a slowly deflating soufflé which has been left too long on the table.

Which is not to say that there is not quite a lot to admire and like. It is refreshing to watch a musical about two gay men, Obi and Alex, who decide to get married because Alex, an American, needs a visa – his leave to remain. Knowing each other only slightly, under the stress of the wedding preparations, their relationship begins to fall apart, in not entirely believable ways. Much is made of their contrasting backgrounds. Alex is a recovering addict who has had much love lavished on him by his overbearing mother; Obi was thrown out by his obdurate father, who could not come to terms with his sexuality.

When their families come together for a pre-wedding dinner party, all the tensions and worries emerge at once. After that sharply observed scene, though, the story unfolds in all too predictable and cliched ways.

What makes it bearable are the performances, particularly from Tyrone Huntley who is electrifying as Obi. The most riveting moment of the entire show is when he is comforted by his sister Chichi (Aretha Ayeh, fabulously warm and strong) after he has been thrown out by his father, delicately played by Cornell S John as a proud Nigerian man who believes Britain has destroyed his son. Rakie Ayola is heart-breaking as the mother torn between them. They make their story believable and in the first half, it dominates and Huntley's sweet, strong voice drives the songs.

It's significant that as the focus on Obi and his family fades, and turns to Alex and his family that the show loses its way. For all Billy Cullum's efforts, it's hard not to share Obi's view of his boyfriend as an entitled whiner and his parents are both less convincing and more over the top.

The show is also miles too long, spinning a slim tale out to nearly two hours without an interval. Cut in half, with more memorable songs, it would shine much brighter.

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