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The Lonely Londoners, Jermyn Street Theatre review - evocative portrait of the migrant experience | reviews, news & interviews

The Lonely Londoners, Jermyn Street Theatre review - evocative portrait of the migrant experience

The Lonely Londoners, Jermyn Street Theatre review - evocative portrait of the migrant experience

Roy Williams and Ebenezer Bamgboye skilfully bring Sam Selvon's novel to the stage

Gamba Cole as Moses, a long way from Trinidad trying to make it in the cold capital of Empire. Photo by Alex Brenner

Sam Selvon’s 1956 novel about a flotilla of Caribbean migrants who came to London filled with expectations of a warm welcome by the Motherland, only to find a cold reception that extended beyond the weather, has been turned into an ingenious play. 

Playwright Roy Williams’ adaptation slims down the characters and beefs up the roles played by women but still captures the essentials of Selvon’s novel. Seven actors fill the tiny stage at the Jermyn Street Theatre and masterfully navigate Selvon’s creolised English. Moses (Gamba Cole) has been in London the longest and alternately advises and scolds the other new arrivals on how to get lodgings, find work and deal with the overt prejudice they encounter. Lively dialogue scenes where the men hang out ‘chatting’ are intercut with individual actors addressing an invisible listener. Not quite monologues, these moments are keenly felt in such a small theatre as the actors look through and past the audience.

There are terrific performances, moments of high comedy (trapping pigeons to turn into a tasty stew) as well as scenes of rage and despair. Big City (Gilbert Kyem Jnr) repeatedly mangles place names (King’s Cross Road becomes Wings Crust Road) and gets teased for mistaking a transvestite prostitute for a woman. Lewis (Tobi Bakare) has to face his wife and mother’s disappointment with him when they join him in London and find the big house and regular salary he’d been boasting about in his letters home to Jamaica were an exaggeration. Agnes (Shannon Hayes) jubilantly recalls how she scolded the Portobello trader who tried to fob her off with rotten fruit and vegetables. Galahad (Romario Simpson) despairs in a lyrical tirade about the hostility provoked by the blackness of his skin 

All the actors are excellent and director Ebenezer Bamgboye ensures the play moves along at a good pace. Bare of scenery, a handful of hard cases act both as storage for costumes, seating and tables. Dialogue scenes are interspersed with stylised choreography, well performed in the tight space, evoking fights and dances, love-making and arguments. 

Less successful is the phalanx of light boxes on the back wall that flash up postal districts – W2, W10. These recurring sequences of brightly pulsing coloured bulbs are designed to break up scenes and energise the production but are somewhat of an endurance test for any theatre goer who doesn’t enjoy full beam lighting in their face, especially in such a small space.

And while the cast are dressed in period costume – baggy trousers, homburgs and knitted jumpers for the men, frocks and felt hats for the ladies – the anachronistic music choices cut against the evocation of the Fifties. Aimee Powell, playing Christina,  the pregnant woman that Moses left behind, has a beautiful singing voice and at times sounds like Erykah Badu. But her vocal style and tracks by Bob Marley and Michael Kiwanuka come from such a later era that the music wrenches the audience away from the Fifties setting. 

This intimate, energetic stage adaptation should bring a new younger readership to Sam Selvon’s superb novels. His innovative writing style and the evocation of  the Windrush generation’s experience in the UK, deserves to be better known. The Lonely Londoners is an impressive start to the Jermyn Street Theatre’s celebration of its 30th year and well worth catching, intrusive lights and all. 

Lively dialogue scenes where the men hang out ‘chatting’ are intercut with individual actors addressing an invisible listener

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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