Leave to Remain review – spirited gay-marriage musical from Kele Okereke

Lyric Hammersmith, London
In Okereke and Matt Jones’s play, directed by Robby Graham, the story, song and movement are seamlessly integrated

The title suggests we’re in for an evening advocating a second referendum. In fact, this is a musical about gay marriage jointly written by Matt Jones, who has scripted countless TV shows from Stan Lee’s Lucky Man to Doctor Who, and Kele Okereke, frontman for the rock band Bloc Party. With the aid of director/choreographer Robby Graham, they have created that rare thing: a spirited British musical in which story, song and movement are seamlessly integrated.

The plot swiftly shows how Obi, who is in digital marketing, and Alex, a visa-less American ex-addict, meet, fall in love and cohabit in a Shoreditch warehouse. Marriage seems the answer to Alex’s residential issues but brings with it the problem of how to tell the parents. Since Obi has long been estranged from his dad, a strict, first-generation Nigerian immigrant, and Alex has deliberately fled his domineering American mum, the confrontation with family is fraught. The best scene shows the attempt at a conciliatory dinner party in which past traumas are re-enacted and ends with Obi’s Bible-reading dad hilariously announcing: “I want to put it on record that I behaved impeccably.”

Outlaw the in-laws ... Leave to Remain.
Outlaw the in-laws ... Leave to Remain, designed by Rebecca Brower. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The wedding-eve crisis itself is over-extended, leading you to wonder why Obi faithfully sticks with the angsty Alex. The virtue of the show lies in its ability to explore ideas through music and movement: one number, a hymn to family, shows the cast rhythmically swaying to Okereke’s electronic score while looking as if at any moment they might fall off their precariously placed chairs.

Instead of using dance as a form of ecstatic diversion, Graham suggests life itself is choreographed, with the cast evoking urban frenzy as they propel the sleekly sliding screens of Rebecca Brower’s set. Tyrone Huntley catches Obi’s wounded solitude exactly, Billy Cullum reconciles one to the flaky Alex and there is sure-footed support from Cornell S John as Obi’s authoritarian dad and Johanne Murdock as Alex’s manipulative mum. If this lively show has a message it is that one recipe for a happy marriage, whether gay or straight, might be to outlaw the in-laws.

• At Lyric Hammersmith, London, until 16 February.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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