West End producers are itching to get their hands on the new show at the Bush. Mama Mia’s director, Phyllida Lloyd, takes charge of a script written by the Torchwood actress Cush Jumbo about the world’s first black female celebrity. Josephine Baker was born to wow the crowds. A child cabaret artiste from St Louis, she performed as a chorus girl in New York and then leapt the Atlantic to become the toast of Paris in the 1920s. Aged 19, she was one of the biggest theatrical stars in Europe. She married an Italian count, adopted 12 children, bought a château, went bankrupt, fought for the Resistance during the war, returned to America in the 1950s and became a heroine of the civil rights movement.
Cush Jumbo brings a formidable range of skills to the role. She dances with furious gusto. She sings powerfully and sweetly and she has tons of stage presence. The trouble is she’s not that interested in Josephine Baker. Cush Jumbo is a Cush Jumbo fanatic, and she constantly interrupts Baker’s story to drag us back into the threadbare drudgery of her acting woes and her boyfriend gripes. This dual approach smudges the show’s focus and wrecks its momentum. And it makes spectators feel deceived and practised upon. A corny trick is employed to convince us that Jumbo is facing a dilemma which unfolds during the performance. She arrives on stage late, and distracted, and claims to have been busy at a casting session that may result in a big showbiz break. She checks her phone regularly to see if her agent has received the all-important news. This dippy prank works, just about, at a fringe theatre. But if the show transfers into town, the trick will self-destruct. A solo performer starring in the West End can hardly be awaiting make-or-break news from her agent.
Jumbo comes across as a shrewd careerist with a gooey heart and a killer instinct. She’s like a swirl of candy floss on a cattle prod. She tells us she’s deeply in love with her adorable environmentalist boyfriend and that they’re desperate to start a family. She then produces a testing kit and announces that she may be pregnant (this is an extension of the casting-call hoax). If the result is positive, she says, she’s going to jilt the baby’s dad, kill the child and go to America in pursuit of stardom. Not a woman to mess with. And not one to warm to either. What a pity Josephine Baker isn’t still with us. She could have told her story as a curtain-raiser and then performed The Life and Times of Cush Jumbo as the main event.
The National Theatre of Scotland has done more to demean Scotland’s cultural reputation than anything I can think of — apart from the Edinburgh parliament building. Any sensible person listening to David Greig, and his director Wils Wilson, outlining their plan to ‘take over a pub’ and belabour the punters with a medley of poems and ghost stories would have said, ‘No.’ But Scotland’s theatre, which regards Scotland’s artistic ruin as an incomplete project, said ‘Yes.’
There’s a lot of aggression and snobbery in this noisy, disjointed, threadbare show. Prudencia is a stuck-up Edinburgh academic who lacks a sense of carnality and wears vintage tweeds. Each of these details is supposed to trigger our ridicule and contempt. She sets off on a quest to find the roots of Scotland’s folk heritage and she arrives at a rural bar where a Kylie Minogue disco-track is being performed on a karaoke machine. So, a Japanese medium, an Australian singer and an American musical idiom. It doesn’t get more Scottish than that. The script muddles its way through various half-witted digressions before revealing itself as a three-hour dream sequence in which a charmless sexual pervert turns out to be Satan.
The production harbours a bizarre scourge which is common to many elite professions: a desire to take revenge on the customer. Chefs spit in the food. MPs fiddle their expenses. TV stars molest children. What do actors do? ‘Audience participation’. The cast toured the pub and invited us to shred our napkins and to fling the pieces aloft in an imitation of snow. This was fun. Then three actors selected a random spectator and pretended to gang-rape him. This was less fun. He looked Asian, too. I’m not sure it’s what he wanted during Ramadan. Even in the friendly surroundings of the London Welsh Centre, and downing frequent flasks of Brains Dark — a high-strength stout — I found this smug fantasy all but intolerable. And why stage it at the Welsh Centre anyway? Perhaps the Scottish equivalent is already an abandoned wreck.
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