Last Updated on 1st July 2023
Tim Hochstrasser reviews the London transfer of Michael R Jackson’s award-winning musical A Strange Loop currently playing at the Barbican Theatre.
A Strange Loop
29 June 2023
After notable success on Broadway last year and collecting a Tony and a Pulitzer on its journey, this new musical arrives at the Barbican Theatre for its British run with much anticipation. It was cheered to the rafters on press night and will doubtless be a great audience success. But how does it stand up to scrutiny?
This is a musical about a black, queer, plus-size musical-theatre writer in New York City who pays the bills by working as an usher on ‘The Lion King’. This man, simply called Usher, is in turn writing a musical about a black, queer, plus-size musical-theatre writer in New York City who pays the bills by working as an usher on ‘The Lion King’. And so on. This is ‘the strange loop’ of the title. Alongside him are six companions, all projections of his various strands of thought – self-loathing, sexual ambivalence, parental admonition, for example. Much of the action is a confrontational dialogue between all of them in which Usher explores both his own identity and black urban identities in general. A key theme is how far black culture, faith and music and sexual expression can be free, and how far it is grounded in white permission or limited by stereotypes insisted on by outside authority?
The presentation of the action has extraordinary strengths and originality but also some surprising structural weaknesses. Book, music and lyrics are the work of Michael R. Jackson, drawing on his own life experience. While there are stylistic debts paid along the way to many of the greats of the American musical tradition, what stands out, just as with ‘Hamilton’, is how liberated and independently imaginative the writing is. We may start from New York locations – a theatre, an apartment, the subway – but soon we branch out into ever more baroque fantasies as Usher encounters key figures from Black American history, confronts his parents in the family home, and – in a final anti-apotheosis – uses an elaborate Gospel church sequence to dramatize his own internalised self-hatred.
The musical palette is varied, with many of the quieter songs resonating longer with this reviewer, than the glitzy showstoppers. Tunes are memorable and the lyrics witty but wordy and elaborate in a way that Sondheim would probably have disapproved of, but which suits the exploration of excess and the pain that lies behind it, which is at the heart of the work. Perhaps most remarkable is the uninhibitedly graphic and explicit nature of the dialogue. But as it is done in service of the project rather than gratuitously it works, and you roll with it.
Production values are intense and impressive. The basic set offers six doors, one for each of the various ‘thoughts’; but these soon give way to ever-more elaborate structures paralleling the vertiginous imagination of the protagonist. The same can be said of the costumes – quite how all the cast manage the numbers of quick changes defies the imagination – there must be metres of Velcro deployed, and an army of assistants off-stage! I never got to see the band, but there were some gracious solos alongside incisive ensemble directed by Candida Caldicot. Raja Feather Kelly devised some delightfully lively and intricate choreography and that built on the theme of ‘loops’ to enable the ’thoughts’ to weave and entwine their way around Usher in line with the drift of the action.
The central role is demanding on every level and Kyle Ramar Freeman fills it with both delicacy and verve. Usher veers between self-excoriating doubt and fierce public scorn – Freeman finds both these extremes with dexterity and the necessary verbal agility. The performance is emotionally centred too, so that you can sense how his own mind is developing towards a final acceptance of self.
Around him the six ‘thoughts’ accomplish miracles of song and dance, with each firmly characterised and distinguished from the other. These are top-flight performances who deliver on every level.
My doubts, such as they are, revolve around the structural integrity of the work. There is quite a lot of thematic repetition and treading of water, especially in the middle section. While the evening runs to only 100 minutes, it could still afford lose one or two scenes to advantage, sharpening the impact of the whole work. It is not so much a question of ‘less is more’; rather that when each scene packs such a heavy emotional punch, you don’t want to become punch-drunk.
Overall, though, this show is a major and original achievement that will surely gain a lasting place in musical theatre repertory and history. In some ways it is an updated, black version of ‘Company’ – no plot, and many characters advising the central protagonist how to change his life for the better. But perhaps it has yet to evolve to its final and best iteration?
Runs through 9 September 2023