Review: Kanye the First (HighTide Festival)

Sam Steiner’s new play debuts as part of the HighTide festival

Sam Steiner burst on the theatre scene in 2015 with the award-winning Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, a vibrant exploration of a single relationship in a world where individuals are limited to 140 words a day – and the consequences of such a limited communicative environment. That play was taut, edgy and exciting, and left theatre pundits wondering, where would the writer go next?

The answer is Kanye The First, commissioned by the HighTide festival and now jumping from a spell in Aldeburgh to North London's Walthamstow. A young white woman, Annie, wakes up to find that she has become the re-embodiment of Kanye West, who, fictitiously, had been killed moments prior. The audience and Annie see Annie (played by Imogen Doel), while the rest of the characters in the play see the 21 Grammy Award-winning star. As the play puts it, it's 'a metaphysical f**k up'.

From there, it's up to her to decide what to do – does she embrace her new identity as a globally famous musical and fashion icon, or attempt to reassert some normality? An ambitious, sprawling concept that attempts to tackle race, celebrity status, mental health and familial tensions. Even compared to Lemons, the plot is as juicy as they come.

Sadly, Steiner rarely seems to be able to handle the issues as neatly as he managed with his debut play. We see Annie in her newfound identity, merging personal quandaries with those of the internationally renowned star, supported by a multi-roling cast who play both immediate family members and those within Kanye's entourage, including, inevitably, his wife Kim Kardashian (their son Saint is a portrayed by a pillow).

Scenes jump to-and-fro, from Kanye's pad to Annie's house to talk show sets, interspersed with spasmodic projections of key events in contemporary history. It is all bewildering. At one stage Annie's mother calls a halt to proceedings to give a monologue about her own marginalisation within her daughter's life, which, while written beautifully with some endearing delivery from Caroline Faber, felt out of place.

There was some humour, mostly in the context of Annie's Freaky Friday-esque antics or the subtle references to Kanye's discography ("it's interesting to me that you'd use the word drop-out" one observer remarks). A lot of this is lifted by a stalwart central performance from Doel's Annie, saddled with the task of carrying Steiner's scenario. Faber, after some fantastic work in My Mother Said I Never Should last year, is a balming presence amongst the conceptual anarchy.

One of the biggest issues that the show seems unable to fully tackle is that of race – we are constantly reminded of the fact that this is a white woman depicting what appears to everyone else (and eventually herself) a black man on stage. It is hard to move beyond this to see the wider comments at play, especially with Doel, quoting West it must be said, using the N-word expletive. Steiner has an important point to make about cultural appropriation, but this jars, rather than shocks.

Kanye the First has edge, and at times is capable of subversion. But the show, with its hazy raft of debates, never feels as though it's the sum of its parts. This could be an important study on the trivialisation of mental health in celebrity culture. Or how famous stars often see a mismatch between image and individuality. Steiner may have had a stunning freshman debut but this was not, three years later, the graduation we were hoping for.

Kanye The First runs at The Mix, Walthamstow as part of HighTide festival until 8 October.