Theatre

The National’s latest attempt to cheer us up: three hours of poverty porn

Plus: something you’d never get at the Royal Court - a funny, candid, dramatic and fresh new musical from the Big House

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Olivier, in rep until 13 April

The Realness

Hackney Downs Studios, until 20 December

Bombay is now called Mumbai by everyone bar its residents, whose historic name (from the Portuguese for ‘beautiful cove’) has been discarded for them by their betters. Near the airport a huge advertising board bearing the slogan ‘Beautiful Forever’ overlooks an alp of discarded junk where homeless paupers crouching in tin shacks toil and slave around the clock to earn a meagre bowl of grey, rat-licked gruel.

Welcome to the National’s latest attempt to cheer us all up. The verminous scrapheap teems with cocky adolescents, witty thieves, evil moneylenders and struggling mums. Their stories interweave but the main thread involves a foul-mouthed clash between some shirty Muslims and a crippled prostitute, living in a nearby tea chest, who gets doused in petrol and torched. Murder or suicide? A side plot develops in the communal crap-house where two bookish schoolgirls squat in the darkness discussing Congreve’s characterisation and the poor narrative structure of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Is that true? Apparently so. Every detail of this show is drawn from a bestselling book by Katherine Boo, an American poverty ogler. And Britain’s top dialogue wonk, David Hare, has transmitted Boo’s findings to the stage. It’s absorbing, powerful and harrowing, in a soapy kind of way, and it successfully conveys the horrors of a society where medicine, education and justice are denied to the underprivileged and the skint. Rufus Norris, heir apparent to Nicholas Hytner, directs the material efficiently enough but he hasn’t learnt how to manipulate the Olivier’s sprawling stage area. Ignore it, mate. Build a new space within the ballpark and shove it up the front. Works a treat. I warmly recommend this show to anyone who craves three hours of shantytown squalor. Treat yourself.


The Realness is a musical tale of redemption set in the East End. Jay, a bolshie young outlaw, is due for release after 17 months inside. As soon as he leaves jail, he’s mugged. Just like that. Bang. Out the door and his smartphone gets nicked by highwaymen on bikes. He goes in search of ‘wifey’, Shanice, now sporting a baby. Not his, apparently. She rejects him. He then lands a plum job as a street cleaner so she takes him back, for obscure reasons, and informs him that the baby is his.

These opening details are rather muddled and confused. But after 20 minutes the show sparkles into life. An exquisitely inventive ballad, ‘Turn Around’, is delivered with angelic sweetness and power by Veronique Andre (Shanice). Then we get some comedy. Jay accepts a lift from his slick chum, Mikey, whose new satnav criticises bad driving in a stroppy Bajan (Barbadian) accent. ‘Ya tek da wrang turnin, raas claat!’ They park the car on a double yellow. Enter a Nigerian traffic warden whose orotund pomposity is hilarious. He dismisses Jay and Mikey’s protests in ornate legalistic language. ‘Ah am de autority figure in diss exchenj!’ He then rhapsodises about the high responsibilities of his office and says, ‘You hev met your match. And det match has lit a fire!’

Had Tom Stoppard written that line he’d have given himself the rest of the day off. The traffic warden isn’t just a dazzling one-off sketch. He reappears later and his punctilious obstinacy leads to the crisis of the play, the death of a baby in crossfire, which a local crime lord is desperate to cover up.

The writing has an amazing freedom and candour. It shrinks from nothing. Jay’s mother is a born again matriarch who preaches Christianity but also beats her children till they bleed. You wouldn’t get a character like that at the Royal Court. Nor would you get the scene where ambitious Mikey informs Jay that his rolling, arm-swinging gait is a badge of failure, not virile rebellion. The second act takes us into the world of Leroy, an urban warlord, who uses bribery and threats to turn the reformed Jay back into a petty hoodlum.

Everything here is dramatic, fresh and brutally gripping. The songs are exceptionally good, a mixture of gospel tunes and soul ballads. And the composer has shrewdly varied them by inserting snatches of dialogue between the choruses. This counterintuitive device creates a feeling of naturalness, and gets rid of the stop-start, chat-song rhythm that gives other musicals an uneasy sense of artifice. The acting, while not uniformly excellent, boasts a great showing from Dymond Allen, who bristles with menace and vanity as Leroy. Jacqui Dubois is wonderfully funny and self-righteous as Jay’s violent mother. And KM Drew Boateng (as Obi the traffic warden) gives the funniest performance I’ve seen all year.

One warning. The venue is tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Dalston-Stokie borders. Leave extra time for bewildered perambulations.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


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