Chiaroscuro review – Jackie Kay's play is more gig than theatre

Bush theatre, London
Lynette Linton’s debut as artistic director is a musical revival of an undramatic piece about the dilemmas of four women

The Bush, which has recently revived Winsome Pinnock’s Leave Taking and Caryl Phillips’s Strange Fruit, has an excellent record for rescuing key plays from neglect. Lynette Linton, in her debut production as the theatre’s artistic director, brings us a 1986 piece from Jackie Kay which, for all its verbal grace, strikes me as a meandering meditation on sexual identity hardly crying out for revival.

Staged as a piece of gig theatre with the actors playing their own instruments, the show deals with four women of colour from diverse backgrounds. Beth is a social worker whose ancestors were all slaves and who falls headily in love with Opal, a mixed-race woman of uncertain parentage. Beth, meanwhile, is a friend of Aisha, an Asian carpenter, who in turn is a chum of Yomi, a single mum of Nigerian origin. Kay explores the dilemmas faced by each of the women through speech, song and their respective attachments to inanimate objects including a photo-album, a mirror, a cushion and a doll. But while Kay highlights moments such as Beth’s recollected schoolgirl sense of sexual isolation, the piece is stubbornly undramatic. Only when Aisha hosts a disastrous dinner party, where the homophobic Yomi attacks her lesbian fellow guests, does the play acquire a palpable tension.

Toying with memory … Gloria Onitri as Yomi in Chiaroscuro.
Toying with memory … Gloria Onitri as Yomi in Chiaroscuro. Photograph: Johan Persson

The piece is perfectly well performed. Shiloh Coke, who composed the pleasantly melancholic music, invests Beth with a late-flowering confidence in her sexual persona, while Anoushka Lucas as Opal sings sweetly and poignantly suggests a woman in search of a fixed identity. Preeya Kalidas brings out Aisha’s keen work ethic, even if her friendship with Gloria Onitri’s Yomi, with her antediluvian attitudes on race and sex, seems improbable. But I feel that Kay – who has Opal say at one point, “When I first met Beth I was swimming in purple oceans, dancing on dangerous waters” – is more concerned with language than action. While chiaroscuro, signifying the interplay of light and shade in visual art, is a haunting word, it is also one of questionable relevance to the more definite demands of drama.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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