Labels (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Worklight Theatre’s multi-award winning show addresses the sticky subject of how we label each other

Joe Sellman-Leava
Joe Sellman-Leava
© Ben Borley

We’re told more and more that we’re ‘global’ citizens: that the general progress of the world means that arbitrary distinctions like race or nationality stop being important. So somewhere like Britain might be heading for a fairer, more egalitarian society – where anyone can date anyone, for example, and the likes of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney’s duet "Ebony & Ivory" (good message, horrid music) need never be played again. And here in Newham – one of the most multicultural boroughs in London, the UK, Europe – a trip to the theatre seems a nice advert for that.

But on the other hand, what if humans have something intrinsically tribal about them, which makes them keep dividing into groups? Us and them, friends and enemies, hard-working migrants and benefit-scrounging immigrants: Labels shows how quick we all are to discriminate by applying categories to one another. And it uses one man’s real-life experiences. Joe Sellman-Leava, 25, would have been called Joe Patel if his father hadn’t changed the family name just to get a job – because Patel must have sounded ‘too Indian’ to prejudiced employers. As for Joe, sure, he might have been born in Cheltenham, and brought up in Devon, but whether at school or on Tinder, he’s always being asked where he’s from – no, where he’s really from – because of the colour of his skin.

So this one-man show is his personal account of how it feels to be labelled – and how we all do it even if we think we don’t, or are a victim of it ourselves. It’s smart, contemporary, and very funny. The inspiration was the last general election, and in particular UKIP’s flooding of the debate with the subject of immigration. Although you increasingly feel that there’s something a bit ‘last year’ about Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband, Sellman-Leava’s impersonations of them are too good to omit – and anyway, they are crucial contributors within a story that begins with Enoch Powell and the rivers of blood, and ends up at Donald Trump and the Syrian crisis.

Perhaps there is even more that could be made of the lazy language that we all use about that latter story – of the fundamental difference between a refugee, an asylum seeker, and a migrant. But this show, which has been to Australia and will visit the US after this UK tour – is an adaptable piece of theatre which could evolve and evolve to keep up with current affairs. Today, though, in just one hour it covers a lot of ground both as a thoughtful political discussion and as a compelling personal narrative from a talented young raconteur. Oh, and it gets through a lot of sticky labels, too.

Labels runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30 April, and then tours the UK until 29 October.