Hopelessly Devoted (Tour – South Hill Park)

Lyrical language is let down by a weak plot in poet Kate Tempest’s latest theatre offering

©Richard Davenport

It was with high expectations that I approached Kate Tempest's new play, Hopelessly Devoted, co-produced by Paines Plough and Birmingham Rep. Tempest is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary theatre. Her "epic poem'" Brand New Ancients, which I caught in Edinburgh last summer and is currently playing in New York, is by far the best piece of spoken word I've ever encountered.

Set in a women's prison, the plot of Hopelessly Devoted follows inmate Chess over a period of a few months, as she deals with the departure of her cell- and soul-mate Serena, who's been granted parole. Through working with Silver, a recovering addict and ex-music producer, she rediscovers her voice through music, and is able to start rebuilding her life.

The stage is left bare, with an effective backdrop giving the impression of the cell and the recording studio, and the three performers remaining onstage throughout. This certainly ensures that the focus remains on the small cast, and for the most part this works well.

Led by the astonishing Cat Simmons as Chess, the performances are touching and engaging. Simmons works very hard, delivering beautiful sung vocal performances and heart-wrenching poems and raps with barely the chance to stop and take breath. 

Indeed, it is the sections of poetry and lyric where Tempest's writing undeniably shines, and particularly the characters of Simmons' Chess and Gbemisola Ikumelo's Serena both speak from the heart through these textual moments, utterly convincingly.

The plot, however, is a little thrown together and directionless in parts – and the flow in terms of narrative is quite weak. The dialogue is sometimes a trifle wooden, and the relationship between Silver (Michelle Gayle) and Chess is under-developed at best. Sadly, it all feels a little in need of re-workshopping.

The biggest let-down for the production is the backing music, so very poorly produced, with the beats not filling the space at all (this may vary in other venues of the tour). It leaves those scenes set in the recording studio feeling distinctly amateur. A respected ex-producer recording on an iPad; really?!

This is a huge shame for Tempest's lyrics and these performers. Had the music pumped rhythmically through the piece as a pulse, the show would have been taken to the next level. Compared musically to something like Kieran Hurley's Beats or indeed to Brand New Ancients, this show falls down. Tempest's trademark rhythm and flow feels tragically out of placed alongside this backing.

But overall, this is a solid piece of work, and for the chance to hear more of Tempest's words delivered skilfully, I would recommend it.

Hopelessly Devoted tours until 19 April.