Juliet Gilkes Romero, well-known for her At The Gates of Gaza, delivers a new drama at the Southwark Playhouse that examines the political trajectory of Britain from the present back to 1980s, spotlighting the lack of representation for minorities.
Romero is particularly interested in Karen (Emma Dennis-Edwards), a black Labour activist, who begins in the present as a scandalised figure, but as the play goes back in time we learn of her integrity in an environment that actively tries to manipulate her. In contrast, her sometime-lover, Michael, has enjoyed a steady and well-supported climb up the ranks despite his more radical origins.
The strong cast of three plough through thick political territory: Michael ascends to political highs, leaving behind a wake of forgotten promises and aspirations that Romero seems to rationalise as being necessary for success, and she uses Karen to critic this transition. From his jovial, progressive and ambitious introduction to politics, he seems to move all too easily into a position of narrow vision, overwhelmed by what he can gain by status rather than any meaningful activity. He aligns with slick political professional Barry, who guides, moulds and manipulates Michael to meet the will of the party.
Dennis-Edwards is well-cast and directed in the role of Karen, and she’s a highly intriguing character. However, the actress had a habit of darting her eyes around the stage as she delivered Romero’s powerful words, meaning that the words themselves were left floating around the room instead of being launched at her anointed target – it was a minor tick yet undeniably distracting.
The set is made up, somewhat oddly, of cardboard boxes that the actors move themselves, flipping the lids of some to reveal cutlery and Jaffa Cakes. Simultaneously, the date is projected onto the back wall, moving backwards through Britain’s political history, making audience-friendly jokes about Blair the young socialist and referencing the Brixton riots and growing tensions amongst the black community who see no-one representing their interests.
It’s an entertaining and lively play that does not shy away from spelling out its message at every turn. There’s nothing hidden about Romero’s agenda; Karen and Michael act as mouthpieces for the plight of the under-represented minority. In one scene, Michael and Barry sit together after interviewing an all-female group in order to diversify their party. With the Oscar nominations this year being the most non-diverse group in 19 years, it seems that we need more and more productions that draw light on our society’s inability to change and welcome new voices and faces.
Upper Cut is playing at the Little Theatre at Southwark Playhouse until 7 February. For tickets and further information see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo by Bob Workman.