Imagine a joyful, precarious, tender love story between two young gay men in London; one a black British second-generation immigrant, the other a white American in danger of losing his visa. Stir in a well-rounded cast of fractious family and friends until it thickens into an incisive social commentary confident in its 2019 skin. Add a generous helping of slick, engaging dance routines and electro-fuelled songs whirling through a dynamic, atmospheric set. Season lightly with flashing lights, snappy wit and a tweeting pastor. Then get on the next train to Hammersmith and watch Matt Jones and Kele Okereke’s Leave to Remain.
Despite a slightly forced opening sequence in which the two main characters, Obi (Tyrone Huntley) and Alex (Billy Cullum), rapidly meet, fall in love and move in together, the performance quickly builds dramatic momentum. Soon Alex’s company decides to relocate him to Abu Dhabi and the couple put their misgivings aside and agree to get married in order to allow Alex to stay in the UK. But as their families gather to arrange the wedding, tensions past and present are painfully uncovered.
At its core Leave to Remain is a sensitive portrayal of the specific difficulties gay men still face in society today. This is epitomised nowhere more than the painful moment when Obi remembers his father driving his 16-year-old self out of the house upon discovering him kissing a boy. This, perhaps, is the most touching moment in Huntley’s inspiring, versatile performance. Alex’s past, meanwhile, is troubled by drug addiction. Both performances sensitively explore the mental health issues associated with the dislocation from their society that young gay people often feel. Importantly, it also shows how this is the result of both overt homophobia and the more insidious kind smothered in a respectable tolerance.
But the play also goes much further, using humour to wonderful effect to visualise the intersectional tensions within our society. These are especially evident through Diane (Johanne Murdock), Alex’s overbearing mother, and Obi’s father, Kenneth (Cornell S. John), a tower of simmering rage. Diane’s presumptive insistence on everyone trying on traditional Nigerian dress at the wedding fitting and Kenneth’s ability to accept his son’s homosexuality – just – only in private speak volumes about white privilege and masculinity.
Director Robby Graham’s choreography is just as engaging as the social commentary eloquently evoking everything from a tense family dinner to an emotional therapy meeting, frequently incorporating Rebecca Brower’s adroit sliding set into the expertly performed dances. The vocal performances are equally assured and the soundtrack adds to the energetic atmosphere the piece, even if the music and lyrics are a little unmemorable at times.
All in all, Leave to Remain is an illuminating, triumphant portrayal of the experiences gay men enjoy and endure on a daily basis, carried along on a wave of emotional insight and electro-rhythms. It blends tradition with progression and unashamedly discusses the contradictions this lays bare. It is warm, moving, sincere and wickedly funny. In many ways, it is the perfect story for these hopeful, bitter, compassionate, turbulent times.
Leave to Remain is playing Lyric Hammersmith until 16 February 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website.