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.
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.