Upper Cut** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: January 17, 2015 in Theatre

upper cutThis review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

“I have to be a politician, who ‘happens’ to be black. Not a black man who ‘happens’ to be a politician” explains Michael, one of the key protagonists in Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play. He is deputy leader of the Labour party and speaking to his long-time lover, Karen in November 2012. Karen is a firebrand, marginalised by the party for fighting on issues affecting only the black community and advocating the selection of black and Asian Parliamentary candidates into winnable seats. Their debates from opposite perspectives form the backbone of the play. Upper Cut is structured in ten scenes, played in reverse chronological order going back to September 1986, thereby attempting to show us where things stand now and how this point was reached. Karen is frustrated that the political establishment blocks the advancement of minority interests, whilst Michael believes that the only way to make a difference is to be in power, which requires compromise and movement to the middle ground. These are weighty issues, argued passionately, making it a great pity that Gilkes Romero so often gets them muddled. References in the play are a confusing mix of real life and fiction. By presenting Michael as deputy leader, Gilkes Romero seems to be saying that it is his pragmatic approach which achieves results. However, it is a simple fact that no black UK politician has, in reality, yet reached such a level, so should she not be making the point that the Michael way and the Karen way are equally flawed? Both Michael and Karen are urged to rein in their radical instincts by a third character, Barry, a party strategist who is always likely to get what he wants by promising a meeting with the leader. He is also Karen’s other lover, but the personal relationships are never fully explored and the three characters are hardly developed beyond being mouthpieces for the writers’s political arguments. By telling us of this love triangle, but not weaving it fully into the fabric of her play, Gilkes Romero is effectively saying nothing more interesting than that these politicians are promiscuous. Karen is described in a right-wing newspaper headline as a “Black Hard-Left Marxist Leninist Feminist”, and, as played by Emma Dennis-Edwards, she comes across as belligerent, self-righteous, resentful and more likely to win the Lottery than friends or an election. Akemnji Ndifornyen”s Michael has the air of a prominent MP in the early stages, but becomes progressively less convincing as he gets younger, whilst Andrew Scarborough strikes the right balance between charm and ruthlessness as the sleazy fixer Barry. Performed on a white traverse stage with props improvised using cardboard boxes, the play progresses through its ten scenes with more or less the same debate taking place in each, except for a twist in the final two which is not properly explained. The issues raised by Gilkes Romero are of vital importance and she is to be commended for airing them, but she really needed to do so more coherently.

Performance date: 16 January 2015

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