Review: J’Ouvert at Theatre503

It may only just be June, but the carnival spirit is already very much alive at Theatre503. Yasmin Joseph’s debut play takes us to Notting Hill in August 2017, just in time to witness J’Ouvert – the official start of carnival, at dawn – through the eyes of three friends: Nadine (Sharla Smith), Jade (Sapphire Joy) and Nisha (Annice Boparai), each of them trying in their own way to reclaim the annual event for the community that created it. As the day passes, the three make their way through the crowds, dancing and drinking, dodging rain showers and disapproving family members – only to be faced with overpriced food, judgmental locals, and the realisation that even in the heart of the world they thought was theirs, they’re still not safe from misogyny, slut-shaming or the threat of physical and sexual violence.

J'Ouvert at Theatre503
Photo credit: Helen Murray

It’s quickly obvious this is a play that knows who it’s speaking to, and the frequent audible and unanimous responses from the majority of the audience to the characters’ experiences and observations confirm that it does so very well. As for those of us who don’t share those experiences, Joseph makes few concessions, instead challenging us to go away and make the effort to plug the gaps in our own understanding. This means the play doesn’t resonate in the same way for everyone, but it also makes perfect sense – in a play about giving Black British people back their voice, it would serve little purpose to keep interrupting the flow to make sure the minority were all keeping up.

The production, directed by Nine Night actor Rebekah Murrell, has had a bit of a bumpy road to the stage, with two cast members having to be replaced just a few days before opening night. Considering the circumstances, Sapphire Joy and Sharla Smith do an amazing job as best friends Jade and Nadine, with a very natural and believable closeness between them. Joining them is Annice Boparai as Nisha, an overenthusiastic activist of Indian descent and privileged upbringing, whose clumsy attempts to fit in with the others are often the cause of both tension and hilarity.

Sandra Falase’s flag-adorned set and sensational costumes bring the Notting Hill Carnival to vibrant life, with each of the women bringing her own interpretation to her outfit for the day. An irresistible soundtrack completes the picture, and there’s a constant sensation of movement and sound throughout, so that even in a pub theatre in Battersea you can feel the thronging crowds and lively atmosphere. The only moment where everything stops is the minute’s silence at 3pm for the victims of Grenfell Tower – a poignant moment of stillness and solidarity amidst the hubbub.

J'Ouvert at Theatre503
Photo credit: Helen Murray

Media coverage of the Notting Hill Carnival tends to focus on increased police presence and the amount of violent crimes committed during the three-day celebration. One such crime – committed by two men against the women who dared to say no – is a pivotal event in J’Ouvert. But the response to that event, and the play as a whole, demonstrate that there’s a lot more to carnival than the grim statistics that get splashed across the papers every summer. The image we’re left with is not one of violence, but of pride, friendship and resilience, and a community that’s prepared to keep fighting for as long as it takes to reclaim its voice and heritage.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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