Review: J'Ouvert (Harold Pinter Theatre)
Yasmin Joseph's play premieres in the West End after having its original Theatre503 opening delayed
The carpet in the Harold Pinter is vibrating – trembling at the awesome power of Carnival, taken from the streets of Notting Hill and condensed onto a West End stage. A subwoofer thunders on, carefully steered by DJ Zuyane Russell, who is overseeing proceedings from the back of Sandra Falase and Chloe Lamford's set. Amongst the assembled, masked, socially distanced crowd – a crackle of electricity seems to fizz.
What has been so refreshing in Sonia Friedman's Re:Emerge season is that it has shown that shows of any size cast and any playwrighting level are more than capable of thrilling in the West End. That was true of Amy Berryman's Walden, a world-building three-hander that found the end of the world in a copse of tranquil trees, and it's definitely the case in Yasmin Joseph's rip-roaring J'Ouvert, taking its name from the iconic street party which is long held to be one of Notting Hill Carnival's best kept secrets – beginning in the early hour of the morning and rolling on throughout the day.
Joseph's text, lyrical, pulsing, woven with tunes and multi-roling, blends the past and present, the spiritual and the instant. The show follows three young people – south Londoner Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks), west Londoner Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Holland Park resident Nisha (Annice Boparai) – making their way through the technicolour throng in 2017.
As the day wears on Nadine is visited by spirits – the ghosts of those long dead: the girl is traversing a procession through time as much as one through the streets of London. Guiding her is a vision of Claudia Jones – one of the founders of Carnival and a woman now recognised with a blue plaque in Notting Hill. "Carnival is a street", Joseph tells us: it's those involved that give it life.
Director Rebekah Murrell's production, though rough and ready in places, makes so much out of so little on Falase and Lamford's bowl-like revolving incline. The cast of four power their way through 100-minute runtime, owning every quarter of the Harold Pinter auditorium. Boparai appears in a box, costumes are brought down from above. Carnival is all-consuming.
Brooks book-ends the show with two power-house monologues, but it would be wrong to highlight any in the cast: Russell, who has DJ'd at Notting Hill Carnival, gives proceedings an authentic endorphin injection with a wave of tunes whenever the pace starts to slip.
The piece originally ran at Theatre503 in south London in 2019, but the last two years have naturally amplified its power – Carnival has now been cancelled twice, for starters. But more importantly – this is a show that revels in questions of community and proximity – as Nadine puts it: "Carnival is flesh. Carnival is body. Carnival is touch." These are all things that have been transformed, often robbed, by the pandemic.
For a moment, a 72-second silence washes over the stage in a sea of green. It's 3pm, one of the characters says. It is powerful – quietly so. Then the party continues – never for a second forgetting what has been lost and what must be fought for, but still celebrating what has been able to thrive.