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Leave to Remain – innovative musical of a modern gay story

Theatre, stage musical, highlife, EDM, love story, race , sexuality, Same-sex marriage, LGBTQ, Leave to Remain, Lyric Theatre, London , LGBTQ, love story, Billy Cullum, Tyrone Huntley,
Romantic leads in Leave to Remain: Billy Cullum as Alex and Tyrone Huntley as Obi
Review by Andy Polaris

Leave to Remain is an energetic new musical play jointly created by TV writer Matt Jones and Kele Okereke, the former frontman of indie rock band Bloc Party, who supplies new songs. In a departure from his solo career he has written for this contemporary love story, newly launched at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, which has Brexit looming over many relationships.

Above: The strongest number ‘Is it me or is it you?’ Music video by Tea Films

The story focuses on the fast-moving tumultuous romance between a young upwardly mobile inter-racial gay couple embarking on what seems to be a hasty marriage of convenience in a Britain seemingly ill at ease with immigration and suffering status anxiety. Obi (Tyrone Huntley) is a rather conservative well educated son of a first-generation Nigerian immigrant, and has started a relationship with visa-less American Alex (Billy Cullum). Alex’s US employer is planning to relocate from London and in order for him to remain in the UK, he proposes a civil partnership with Obi. Mutual friends don’t seem all that supportive and then there is the tricky question of making the announcement to both families.

This is where the play comes alive. What should be joyous news elicits feelings of apprehension as childhood upbringings reveal contrasting  experiences of coming out to loved ones. It is these differences that drive the play forward and there is some laugh-out-loud hilarity from Alex’s visiting liberal parents eager to show how thrilled they are to Obi’s more reticent mother Grace (Rakie Ayola) and completely averse father Kenneth (Cornell S John) who had thrown Obi out of the family home after he came out.  His supportive sister Chichi (Aretha Ayeh) gives a buoyant performance that lifts him through this trauma and sings “Hold tight, you’re safe tonight” in his moments of doubt.

Click any picture to view slideshow (stage photography by Helen Maybanks):

Cultural differences are glossed over by Alex’s overbearing mum Diane (Johanne Murdock) who remarks to Grace how she is happy to meet her son’s partner and suggests they start their own support group. Diane’s over-familiar and well meaning attempts to embrace Nigerian culture, and the different approaches from both parents to the nuptials, are wincing or amusing depending on your viewpoint. That dinner table is like an updated La Cage Aux Folles where societal changes mean everyone knows it’s a same-sex relationship but it’s the racial and cultural responses that stir the pot. Comic relief comes from  Diane, critical future mother-in-law, and from mutual camp friend self-absorbed Damien (Arun Blair Mangat) who expresses unrequited issues in Damien’s Seduction with a beautiful stand-out voice. Both come close to scene-stealing as they deliver some of the evening’s best lines.

There is a slight slump towards the end of the play which could be due to no interval and perhaps some tweaking will be done with material and perhaps strengthening of melodies but I had no problems with the voices of the cast. Tyrone Huntley’s charismatic performances have been acknowledged by an Evening Standard Emerging Talent Award and roles in Book of Mormon and Dreamgirls. Billy Cullum has appeared in Matilda and in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As an ensemble, the Lyric cast is strong.

The Sea Between Us to me was the strongest and most memorable number, portraying the doubt the couple have in a fledgling relationship, especially with their hook-up temptations and fear of commitment. “Is it me or is it you? Or are we trapped in this dance that lovers do?” This strong lyric has a yearning refrain of “start again” as distractions threaten to pull the pair in different directions and has echoes of the vulnerability of Bronski Beat’s classic Small Town Boy.

Robby Graham, Kele Okereke, Theatre, stage musical, highlife, EDM, love story, race , sexuality, Same-sex marriage, LGBTQ, Leave to Remain, Lyric Theatre, London , LGBTQ, love story,
Musical innovation: with electronic score by Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke and movement by director Robby Graham

As Kele Okereke is one of a few out black singers, I’m assuming this is autobiographical material and the songs reflect his roots with percussive African highlife rhythms and language peppering the show’s original mix of EDM soundtrack. What set this show apart are the interesting modern dance moves by director/choreographer Robby Graham that fuse all characters while the two leads move in a beautiful balletic embrace. This intimacy is rare to see for a gay couple on the London stage and it’s something that LGBTQ audiences have been quite starved of. It’s a tribute that both leading actors convey touching believability.

Scenes alternate between domestic life in Obi’s upscale apartment and louche nightclubs with the cast doubling as revellers. There is an authenticity to the story and especially how the double burdens of race and sexuality come to dominate struggles for self-esteem in a harsh world – in particular Obi’s exasperation at his partner’s privilege and supportive parents. The themes of alienation, family and gay identity in a world of social media and drug culture reinforce the musical’s contemporary relevance, and make this a thoughtful look at where we stand in 2019. I think the show does have the potential to do very well, so as the Nineties delivered fresh social political drama with the musical Rent, can Leave To Remain provide the millennials with a musical for their own times? This show has much to recommend it.

Leave to Remain, a modern love story with music, is written by Matt Jones and Kele Okereke, directed by Robby Graham, and runs at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 0QL, 18 Jan–16 Feb 2019

The creatives discuss their musical

First taste of the Leave To Remain
album from Orchard Music

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Caroline or Change: one mother’s life 16ft beneath the sea

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Sharon D Clarke at left, with Mesha Bryan, Tshan Williams and Sharon-Rose as The Radio, with Carole-Stennett as the washing machine. Photo Alastair Muir

Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change has transferred to the West End after glowing reviews and an Olivier-Award winning start at Chichester and a successful stint at the Hampstead Theatre. With music by Jeanine Tesori, the show was first performed in NYC in 2003 and in London in 2006 and is set in America during the 1960s, a time of significant social upheaval. Michael Longhurst’s revival comes hot on the heels of another acclaimed run for the writer’s best-known work ‘Angels in America’ which ran at the National Theatre in the summer…

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Sharon D. Clark, maid to to a Jewish family in Louisiana. Noah the son of her employer stands at rear

This is no way a feel-good musical – hardly surprising when the subject matter is domestic servitude and racial dynamics in civil-rights era America. It also purposely has songs and structures which reflect the dark tonal themes so you won’t find yourself humming them on the way home. They are however delivered with gusto from the professional cast in which the child actors match the adults in strong performances, especially 8-year-old Noah who has a lot of stage time. Through the southern soul sounds and heartfelt gospel we are also regaled with the clarinet and celebratory traditional Jewish music as a contrasting cultural soundtrack.

The musical opens in Lake Charles Louisiana in 1963. The African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux (played by theatre legend Sharon D Clarke) contemplates her life of domestic drudgery doing laundry for a white Jewish family for $30 a week. We find her in a humid, windowless basement she describes in song as ’16ft Beneath The Sea’, with just a radio and her youngest charge, their only child the friendly Noah, who revels in their secret lighting of her cigarettes (‘The Cigarette’).  She sees her life as hopeless and unchanged in the 22 years she has worked in the same house and the appliances – a washing machine and dryer – are centre stage in her solitude as living characters spinning around like some corny American game show prize (‘Laundry Quintet”). The radio also is portrayed as a Greek chorus of Radios 1, 2 and 3 by a trio of black female vocalists whose Motown-style songs illustrate her plight with sweet harmonies. Way up above we have the beautiful glimmering singing Moon (Angela Caesar) who oversees the action.

The main focus is the relationship between Caroline, her employers and her own young family: a feisty daughter and her three sons (one serving in Vietnam). Her employer, the rather neurotic second wife Rose, seems unwilling to offer Caroline a raise so instead offers leftover food or the opportunity to keep Noah’s loose pocket change to teach him a life lesson ironically in looking after money. Noah deliberately leaves change in his trousers which Caroline puts into a  cup (‘Quarter In A Bleach Cup’) on the machine and which she eventually puts in her purse, humiliated but out of necessity, for rare treats for her children (‘I’ve Got Four Children’). This bitterness makes her tetchy and finally she lashes out at Noah when he clings to her because he’s unable to bond with his stepmother and is missing his deceased mother (‘Noah Has A Problem’).

By day, Caroline is effectively isolated from her own community which is at the centre of current affairs. On leaving work she meets up with a friend Dotty who innocently asks her how are things while mentioning her boyfriend and attending night school. Caroline is irked by her questions and ambitions and starts an argument about their different lifestyles. Dotty remarks about the strange beheading of a confederate statue in the town (‘Moon Change’) in an uncanny prediction of the real-life American national drama in the South and conviction of a  Charlottesville racist killer recently.  The women are shocked that the bus delay is due to the news of JFK’s assassination (‘The President Is Dead’). When she tells her daughter of his passing Emmie is unmoved, frustrated that his promises for the black community didn’t materialise.

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Angela Caesar as Moon. Photo Alastair Muir

Inter-racial differences come into focus when Rose’s Jewish family come visiting from NY for Hannukah and Caroline and her daughter find themselves preparing a celebratory meal. A lively discussion around the festive table ensues between the patriarch and Caroline’s daughter about the fate of minorities. Caroline is vexed and a little afraid of her daughter’s vocal protestations, knowing that a raised black voice to a white person could lead to a beating or much worse. She also doesn’t want to lose her job.

Things come to a head when Noah accidentally leaves a $20 bill in his pocket after being given to him by his grandfather and which Caroline keeps. Their row provokes an exchange of racial slurs that elicit an audible gasp from the audience.  Caroline disappears from her basement workplace, causing consternation in a household which has taken her for granted, and mistakenly believed they shared a friendship in which there is no equality or choice. Caroline chooses this time to bond with her daughter who explains that she wants something better for her future. In a standout song (‘Lot’s Wife’) Caroline wrings out the emotion dealing with her inner turmoil and faith, the church  being the sanctuary that offered hope to the harsh lives black people led. The finale leads to a less than surprising reveal of the generational attitudes of the mother and daughter and a new awareness to the fragile household.

There has a been a decades-long history of Hollywood’s troublesome affair with black maids, from the Oscar winning Hattie McDaniels in the 1940 ‘Gone With the Wind’, to Oscar-winning Viola Davis in ‘The Help’ in 2012. In that period, Oscar-nominated Juanita Moore in ‘Imitation Of Life’ and Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Corrina Corrina’ joined these portrayals addressing America’s complex issues with race and the South. One of the first depictions I can remember as a child is Mammy Two Shoes, the faceless black maid who frequently appeared as one of the only humans regularly featured in the popular long-running cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’. Like a lot of comic stereotypes of negroes in entertainment at that time she would be roundly scorned right now.

The writer of this musical has said he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a non-political play. This one is based on Tony Kushner’s life and it offers a window into literally a nanny state of mind for him and a vast generation of rich American white children growing up where black maids were a constant in their lives and perhaps also a confidante and surrogate mother. What impact did this have on their view of race as adults we can’t glean as Noah is only seen as a young child, and the adults here don’t appear to form any long-lasting alliances outside of employee/employer. The show is to be recommended for depicting a slice of pivotal American social history where black women were the backbone of rich white families in a divided country, and skin colour determined your social status. We are eventually beginning to hear the voices of the women in this hidden world where recent studies show 1 in 25 female workers worldwide is a domestic worker.

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, musical, Sharon D Clarke, reviews,
Caroline or Change: Carole Stennett, TShan Williams and Sharon Rose as The Radio. Photo Marc Brenner

Afterwards, a backstage tour and
talk with the cast

Caroline or Change, West End , London, Playhouse Theatre, talk, Mike Longhurst, Sharon D Clarke, critics, Matt Trueman, backstage, Tony Kushner
Public talk at the Playhouse Theatre following Caroline or Change: director Mike Longhurst, actress Sharon D Clarke who plays the title role and theatre critic Matt Trueman chairing the event.

We were fortunate to join an after-show interview and brief Q&A with the actors and director who discussed the genesis of the play and how they came to be involved. We also enjoyed an interesting backstage tour, along with dressing rooms and of course I was interested in the props which included a Servis washing machine and a table setting that included plastic and real cooked vegetables.

Caroline or Change runs at the Playhouse Theatre
from 20 November 2018 to 9 February 2019

++++++++++++

David Byrne triumphantly rewrites the rules for a rock concert

David Byrne, live concert, 'American Utopia', rock music, musicians,choreography
Live on-stage: David Byrne playing guitar at the centre of his barefoot ‘American Utopia’ musicians. Photographed by Ben Stas

Last time that I saw the legendary Talking Heads was over thirty years ago at London’s Hammersmith Palais. It was the ‘Remain In Light’ tour, a landmark album for the band with the creative production of Brian Eno and live with Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic augmenting the line-up.  So the glowing five-star international reviews for David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 meant there was genuine and palpable anticipation surging through the 4,000-strong audience packed into the Brighton Centre this week.

The set opened with a vast empty stage, only a small table and chair with a grey-haired casually suited Byrne seated and singing to a plastic brain which he held aloft. He looked like the coolest science teacher explaining its merits, albeit barefoot and to a much more appreciative adult education class. He was joined onstage by similarly attired backing vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba who we quickly realised, along with the rest of the 11-piece band, were agile in their dual role as musicians and dancers. It was the realisation that with Annie-B Parson’s sophisticated and at times elaborate choreography (especially for the backing vocalists) this was far from standard fare.  I then remembered the work Byrne did with dancer Twyla Tharp in the eighties, and realised this show has become a logical next step in the imaginative presentation of his eclectic catalogue.

We moved uptempo with ‘Lazy’, the breezy solo club hit that resulted when Byrne guested as vocalist with X Press 2, and this buoyed the crowd with its almost aerobic glee. This was followed by the first Talking Heads gem ‘I Zimbra’ (Fear of Music) when we saw everyone – especially the impressive six-piece percussion section – play and dance a combination of street carnival panache and those joyous college brass bands in the US.

David Byrne, live concert, tour, 'American Utopia' ,poster
David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ 2018 tour poster

From here on we were treated to almost two hours of frenetic then thoughtful funky reworkings of Talking Heads material and cuts from David Byrne’s prodigious solo material including the current release ‘American Utopia’ which reflects on the dire current US political climate with a sense of hope. The standouts were many but the surreal when released ‘Once In A Lifetime’ crackled with almost evangelical zeal as Byrne flung himself around on-stage… Against giant dancing shadows like a Busby Berkeley musical number, ‘Blind’ was given brassy punch and brought energetic solos from its talented percussionist pool… The opening guitar chords of ‘Burning Down the House’ did exactly what it said on the label… ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ exuded an inclusive party feel which Byrne explained was also matched by his band’s origins from all around the world. Personally I loved  ‘Born Under Punches’ and ‘The Great Curve’ because ‘Remain in Light’ is one of my favourite albums.

The incredibly talented and tight band were unencumbered by cables and the usual stage furniture so were free to inhabit the space and relish their obvious camaraderie. Their sense of fun was immediately reflected in the audience enthusiasm which elevated this evening to an experience more aligned with modern theatre than Brighton’s bland conference venue.

The show didn’t end with the classic ‘Psycho Killer’ but a more unexpected cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a song whose communally chanted names of people are the grim list of victims who inspired Black Lives Matter, killed in the most dreadful circumstances, and including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray amongst others. Before the song Byrne suggested the audience google their names if they were unaware who they were. It echoed the themes of ‘American Utopia’ and his involvement in voter registration for the mid-term elections and possibility of change.

This was a triumphant show and one that will be remembered for setting a new benchmark in creativity. I can think of ‘Wire’ at London’s Jeanette Cochrane theatre and Grace Jones’s ‘One Man Show’ at Drury Lane among the few that I can remember that successfully pulled off originality with such aplomb. Now who, I wonder, made those two-piece grey suits?

David Byrne, live concert, 'American Utopia' ,musicians,choreography
Look, no wires: David Byrne amid his eleven musicians all playing live yet free to roam the stage

David Byrne’s year-long ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 continues via Europe to Australia

All about David Byrne

1984, George Orwell and the BBC Top of the Pops

BBC4, Top of the Pops, 1980s, Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Andy Polaris,
June 2017: Me, Andy P as talking head on the Top of the Pops Story of 1984 (Pic: BBC)

Catch up with me talking about the exuberant pop scene of 1984
on the latest TV documentary analysing the hits of that year as aired on Top of the Pops, the BBC’s flagship weekly music show

Add your own comments at Twitter . . . And at Instagram

I remember vividly reading George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 as a teenager at school, not under duress as part of English literature but because I had a fascination for sci fiction and future worlds.

George Orwell, 1984, books literature, To me the book is a masterpiece and has received a recent surge of interest when it reached the number one spot on the online retailer Amazon best-sellers list in January. This was due to Donald Trump’s press star discussing “alternative facts” and the curious new world of American politics. I had daydreamed what the world would be like both in 2001 which seemed light years away and the closer 1984. The world was changing fast and my path had taken me from London, the suburbs, the countryside and back to the city again.

The year of 1984 had found me fronting the MK II version of Animal Nightlife, slimmed-down to a six-piece. We had released three singles. Love is Just The Great Pretender, Mighty Hands of Love and Native Boy. That year we released our fourth, the uptempo Mr Solitaire on Island Records which gave us our debut on the BBC’s legendary Top of The Pops, its weekly review of the UK charts. This was a teenage fantasy realised, although I will admit it was daydream. I never really thought it was possible while living in Essex and enjoying the show through my early teens. I had more mundane things to think about like racism, dealing with a care order and trying to concentrate at school.

Top of the Pops, 1980s, Animal Nightlife, jazz, soul, pop music, Andy Polaris,
September 1984: Animal Nightlife’s Top of the Pops debut with Mr Solitaire (Pic: BBC)

Top of the Pops, along with the chart rundown on a Sunday, actually forged musical tastes and purchases especially in the decade of T.Rex, The Sweet, Cockney Rebel, Sparks and Roxy Music all becoming bands whose singles I would devour. Their alternative brand of male glamour swanned across a rather clunky (by today’s standards) television set and into my teenage consciousness. Everything was about escaping.

By 1984, thanks to our fans, live shows and the support of our radio cheerleaders Tony Blackburn (Radio London) and Gary Crowley (Capital), Mr Solitaire had slowly clambered into the top 40.

On 27/9/1984 the Top of the Pops line up was:
UB40 – If It Happens Again PA
Shakin Stevens – A Letter To You, promo
Sade – Smooth Operator PA
U2 – In the Name of Love, promo
Animal Nightlife – Mr Solitaire PA
Stephanie Mills – The Medicine Song, promo
Big Country – East of Eden
Prince – Purple Rain, promo
Stevie Wonder – I Just Called To Say I Love You

So not much competition really. Interesting that all four British bands performing were multi-racial line-ups. We were friends with Sade who went stratospheric and her guitarist-saxophonist Stuart Matthewman should be on the documentary tonight along with Chris Sullivan from Blue Rondo. And while this year represented a healthy musical mish-mash, tonight’s documentary lineup is virtually a definitive showcase of all the key new British bands of the early 1980s who were invading the US and world charts – Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Bananarama, Bronski Beat, Howard Jones, Scritti Politti, Matt Bianco, Depeche Mode, OMD, The Special AKA, Nik Kershaw, Wham! and the Band Aid Christmas Number One which for years held the record as the biggest-selling UK single ever.

We in Animal Nightlife may not have been part of that armada, just one of the myriad new artists who made a smaller splash which, like all music, continues to ripple out from its earliest impact.

The Story of 1984: 9pm, Friday 2 June 2017 on BBC4 (repeated at 00:30) – and then for a month on the iPlayer: “1984 sees Top of the Pops at the height of its 80s pomp – the year of big hair and big tunes.”

Followed at 10pm, 2 June 2017 by Top of the Pops: 1984 Big Hits (repeated at 01:30) – and then for a month on the iPlayer: includes stylish performances by The Smiths, Bananarama, Sade, Alison Moyet, Echo and the Bunnymen, Wham! and George Michael solo.

Heres a nice audio remix of our song:

Previously at A Polaris View, all about Animal Nightlife’s album Shangri-la

Save Me From Suburbia – BBC film about Boy George and the 70s

Earlier this year I was asked to participate in a documentary for BBC TV, part of a series of hour-long films examining different decades of British social history. Set against the background of popular music from that decade, each is based around a music artist of that time and so tells personal stories from different backgrounds.

BBC Music’s My Generation season continues this week by examining the 70s as experienced by the charismatic singer Boy George in his teenage years. Save Me From Suburbia examines influences creatively during his teenage years that formed a desire to project his personal style into what initially was a startled suburbia. Our paths would cross in the second half of the decade and a lot of his story has been well documented in his two autobiographies, Take It Like A Man and Straight.

A group of  creative people who also emerged from that London scene are also interviewed, including nightclub host and promoter Philip Sallon, androgynous singer Marilyn, It Girl Princess Julia and clothes designer Martin Degville. All our lives would intertwine  through our adventures in London’s emerging punk scene and the nightclubbing that followed.

London, Billy's , Andy Polaris, nightclubs
Billy’s nightclub about 1978: me sporting soul-boy chic. Photo by Nicola Tyson

More photos by Nicola Tyson of the Bowie Nights at Billy’s in Soho

Pivotal moments in my 1970s

1976 First major concert by David Bowie: Station To Station at Wembley Arena

bowiestation

1977 Punk explosion seeing literally as many bands as possible from Wire, The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks to X Ray Spex, The Slits, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Appearing briefly in the Wolfgang Büld 1977 documentary Punk In London (below).

1978 Billy’s Bowie Night opens in London and I appear in a centre-page feature (below) about club and style in the UK national newspaper the Daily Mail.

71718_4639751405597_892009897_n

It’s currently Black History Month in the UK and one thing that hasn’t really changed since the seventies is finding our lives reflected on screen in a meaningful way. There is a need to see the black experiences and cultural creative input being recognized when that story or period of history is being told. I was glad to have the opportunity to provide my perspective because race, gender and sexuality tend to have completely different journeys to navigate through teenage life and beyond.

I will eventually expand this into a more detailed look at life for a mixed-race, sexually confused teenager living in suburbia and alienated in the seventies. Not here, now but hopefully in the near future.

The Save Me From Suburbia film is available to UK viewers on BBC iPlayer for 28 days from transmission on Saturday 8 Oct.

Press/ Reviews

From Boy George to Bowie – rock ’n’ roll was born in the suburbs – Stuart Maconie’s review

BBC Music’s My Generation year-long season is telling the story of popular music, and launched with the 1950s back in April – Radio Times feature.

More from Nicola Tyson and her clubbing photography at The Guardian

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