Rebel Music review – when Birmingham rocked against racism

Birmingham Rep
Packed with punk and reggae tracks, Robin French’s bold new play about racial tensions in 70s Britain hits some high notes

Amid the fraught racial tensions of the stifling British summer of 1976, punk and reggae fans are forging Rock Against Racism, a movement designed to bring together dissonant beats and clashing cultures. Robin French’s latest play is both an interrogation of that era and an homage to its artistic legacy. It’s packed with songs from the time, rearranged by French, director Alex Brown and musical director James Frewer. The result is a bold effort with some cracking high notes.

The play focuses on teenage friends Denise and Trudi, whose tastes and priorities are now diverging after a lifetime of mutual devotion. Denise (Lauren Foster) has Jamaican heritage and – with the far right rising – feels increasingly uncomfortable on Birmingham’s streets. Skinhead Trudi (Hannah Millward) is a muddle of influences, with an Irish mum and closet racist brother. Foster and Millward have a lovely youthful energy about them and when they dance, limbs flying akimbo, an elastic hopefulness fills the theatre. But they’re also given a lot of punk songs to perform: the score isn’t in their range and their story diminishes a little with every number.

Rebel Music has been created with gig-theatre specialists Middle Child, but the gig side of things never takes off. Instead, the galvanising power of music is best captured with words, particularly when Andrew – an impassioned member of Rock Against Racism – describes the protest march that inspired him. Nathan Queeley-Dennis performs this virtuoso monologue with steely grace as he remembers when hope bubbled up.

Contributor

Miriam Gillinson

The GuardianTramp

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