Everyone can feel their life in going around in circles. A Strange Loop makes circularity an art form. It is a musical about a theatre usher called Usher who, in his own words, is fat, Black and queer and struggling to write a musical about being a theatre usher called Usher who is fat, Black and queer.
Taking its title from a cognitive science term about the definition of “I”, the show, with book, music and lyrics by Michael R Jackson arrives at the Barbican for a 12-week run brandishing a Pulitzer and two Tonys. It is a blast and a revelation. Underneath its insane wittiness, its very American cultural references and its explicit sexual asides, its heart is very pure.
A Strange Loop works because it is about a sweet person battling his demons and exposing his soul. It’s hilarious – but also emotional. Those demons are incarnated here by Usher’s six Thoughts – “I’m your daily dose of self-loathing”, “I’m sexual ambivalence” – who step forward from the doorframes that line the back of Arnulfo Maldonado’s vividly lit set to torment him with his own inadequacies. Beautifully and vibrantly played by a mainly British cast, they also take on the roles of the people who trouble his mind, from his God-fearing mother to his drunken father to the man who demeans him in a sexual encounter.
Kyle Ramar Freeman’s Usher, on stage virtually throughout, holds the centre with a kind of tender bafflement, which gradually morphs into a determination to make his voice heard, to tell his truth. Which is what the show does, in exuberant and powerful ways. It’s an astonishing tour-de-force, with lyrics that drive the action without mercy or pity, pushing both Usher and the audience onwards in ever deeper waves of self-reference and anxiety.
The music is memorable, but it’s the sheer virtuosity of those lyrics that catch the ear, added to the fact that the circular, questioning structure allows the show to embody the issues it raises. Early on, Usher is advised by his nagging chorus to write a show that is about slavery, or police violence with an element of intersectionality that the allies in the audience can hold on to. It’s an audacious sung line.
By the close, what we are watching is his version of a Tyler Perry style gospel play where, urged on by his mother, the gospel choir are singing a chorus about hell being real and AIDS being God’s punishment, all in front of a red HIV sign. Form and content are explored in front of our eyes, offering dizzying challenges to preconceptions. It’s exhilarating, but also serious.
Stephen Brackett’s direction firmly holds the exploding package together, offering a precision that is matched by Raja Feather Kelly’s superb, detailed choreography that makes every movement and each gesture tell its own story. The constant switching of the supporting cast between roles, helped by Montana Levi Blanco’s spare but telling costumes, gives the entire production flow and vibrancy.
What makes A Strange Loop so compelling though, what cuts under its whirling cleverness, is the way it makes Usher’s suffering so intense. As it digs, it unlocks true sadness and alienation, so that the relative calm of the ending is almost a relief. It’s original and old-fashioned all at once.