Review: Chiaroscuro, Bush Theatre

Chiaroscuro is the first play directed by Lynette Linton in her role as the new Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre. While Chiaroscuro may be Linton’s Bush debut, it is the last production in the Bush’s Passing the Baton series, a three year initiative to shine a light on influential playwrights of colour.  

Linton has taken Jackie Kay’s 1986 play and reinvented it into a piece of electrifying and deeply moving gig theatre. The score (composed by cast member Shilah Coke) and vocals are sublime and the show is worth seeing for those two elements alone. Instead of a typical narrative format, the play is an exploration of characters: their pasts, identities and insecurities and how the four characters interact with each other. New couple Beth (Coke) and Opal (Anoushka Lucas) are two young black women who are navigating what it means to be both black and queer. Tensions rise and personalities clash when they attend a dinner party hosted by friend Aisha (Preeya Kalidas) and encounter Yomi (Gloria Onitiri) and her homophobic views. All of the cast are incredibly strong vocalists and performers, their voices blending together soulfully while retaining their individuality. There aren’t stand out performers because all of the quartet are performing to the top of their ability, with not a dud moment in the 85-minute show. 

Despite being an all-together phenomenally executed vision, there are a couple of weak moments in the show where the energy drops. These occur when the characters are seemingly creating the songs together on stage. Although these may have been intended to serve as a transition between ‘story moments’ and ‘song moments’, they feel clunky, inauthentic and a bit awkward.

Overall, Chiaroscuro is an incredibly poignant production and very much still relevant despite being written in the 1980s. It tackles a variety of identities and experiences in a well-balanced way, giving almost equal time for each of the characters to explain ‘how they got to where they were’.

One of the aims of Chiaroscuro is to celebrate the generations of queer women of colour who were left out of the history books, folk tales and mainstream media. The irony is not lost then, that even though Chiaroscuro was written 33 years ago, there is still a significant lack of queer and Black stories told on the stages of theatres in London and across the UK, especially the non-fringe venues.

Chiaroscuro is playing the Bush Theatre until 5 October. For more information and tickets see the Bush Theatre website.