Review: Out West (Lyric Hammersmith Theatre)

Three playwrights deliver solo pieces

Esh Alladi in The Overseas Student
Esh Alladi in The Overseas Student
© Helen Maybanks

What happens when you take three of the best playwrights of a generation, give them a loose prompt and let them craft whatever monologue they see fit? The result is Out West, a scintillating pick 'n' mix of solo performance that glides through a two-hour-plus run-time.

The majority of the evening is dedicated to The Overseas Student, Tanika Gupta's piece following the 19 year-old Mohandas K Gandhi as he touches down in London in the late 19th century – full of bright-eyed wonder for the largest city on the planet. From there, he makes every attempt to ingratiate himself with the local culture ("My Sanskrit is awful, my Latin, better") – one that, as he comes to learn, is built upon the exploitation of his home nation of India.

Gupta revels in the fact that her audiences are watching as future voyeurs – all of us, with decades of hindsight, knowing full well that the young anglophile will eventually come to reject the nation he initially adored. Lacing the text with talk of temptation, Gupta sows the seeds for the birth of Ghandi's political conscience.

It's a great piece: some of Gandhi's inner guilt arrives slightly too late, like some unseen well of choppy waters, but performer Esh Alladi gives the historical figure a jaunty skittishness, endearingly blustering his way across the capital in search of a vegetarian restaurant. The fact that Gandhi, through his discussions with reformers like Annie Besant, formed his principles while living in the heart of the very Empire he would later play a part in dismantling, is a great indication of how ideas do not observe national borders.

The two fleeter tales, Simon Stephens' Blue Water and Cold and Fresh and Roy Williams' Go, Girl, are grounded in the here and now, telling Hammersmith stories placed against the backdrop of the pandemic. Rather than woeful Covid chronicles, each delves into themes of identity, race and family – with a fascinating interplay between the two texts, either responding to the generation before or the generation to come.

Tom Mothersdale gives Stephens' lead character Jack a candid frankness, all conversational and bumbling – as if he was having a heavy-hearted natter over a garden fence. His is a tale of a haunted Hammersmith, where the streets and squares are transformed by memories of a fractious relationship with his father – while also grappling with the practical and conceptual nuances of being part of an interracial couple.

Williams' piece is brighter, pacier and much funnier – Ayesha Antoine closing the night with a laugh-laden confessional as she unspools her life after having gotten pregnant at the age of 15. Couching the text in reference to Michelle Obama's famous visit to a school in London back in 2009, Williams delivers a neat amuse-bouche – a self-contained reflection on how empowerment can pass from mother to daughter.

Co-directors Rachel O'Riordan and Diane Page let the texts speak for themselves, a straightforward wooden set metamorphosing for each of the three performers. In the end it's the words, and the connection between character and audience, that shines through: a welcome return for the splendid west London space.

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Out West

Closed: 24 July 2021