A Theatre Review: Leave To Remain

Writing a musical is the last thing you would expect from Kele Okereke. Bloc Party's lead singer, along with Matt Jones, told the intricate story of "a young gay couple leading busy London lives". Yes, there are vague parallels between Kele's experiences and the synopsis but as the plot thickens (sorry for the cliché), the question has to be raised: how semi-autobiographical is the play?

The audience follows Obi (played by Tyron Huntley) and Alex (Billy Callum) as they use 'holy' matrimony as the solution to Alex's visa problems. What was really commendable was that the production didn't play to a familiar tune; it steered clear of stereotypes. Surprisingly, Alex was the character dealing with visa issues as an American citizen, instead of Obi- being of Nigerian descent. Although marriage is a big step and theme within the performance, it is quickly understood that it is the least of the protagonists' problems. From family issues to ambiguous relationships with friends, resolving past concerns is essential for their future.

Tyrone Huntley and Billy Cullum in 'Leave to Remain' at the Lyric Hammersmith By Alastair Muir

The director's vision was perfectly encapsulated in the lighting, set design and musical numbers. As director, Robby Graham made it clear how fast-paced he wanted the show to be. So, without any intervals it had the potential to lose momentum, but I was proven wrong. Watching how the actors depicted the passage of time was a highlight I won't be forgetting anytime soon. The multirole performers wheeled huge shutters across the stage that blended seamlessly into the rest of the design to convey the passing of time. Simultaneously, the strobe lights that mimicked the club from previous scenes would flicker as the lyrics from different numbers would come together in a harmonised ensemble. It’s clear that the storyline wasn't the only intricate aspect.

It's impossible to move forward without discussing movement. The creativity of the dance alone was enough to rave about, but my interest had the same mutual connection as lighting and set design: time. Not only was movement used to expose the controversy and intimacy, it was the key to 'travelling through time'. When Obi went to confront his parents about his marriage, he danced in unison with his younger self until the teenage Obi was the only form of himself on stage. We were able to see how the trauma transcended time in such an abstract form through the use of interpretive dance. I was convinced this scene couldn't be bested but the family dinner shattered my expectations. The coming together of Alex's and Obi's family was 'awkward' to say the least. Tensions were built through underhanded comments and slight, yet noticeable gestures. When the pressures on stage piqued, the cast broke into a synchronized danced accompanied by a musical number. It seemed as if it were the only way to communicate how every character effectively felt and it was physically represented through the spilling on the wine.

In an interview with The Standard, Kele addresses the similarities drawn between himself and Obi:

"I don’t think it is an autobiographical story. I share similarities with Obi — he’s British-born but of Nigerian descent, and he has issues with this family. But that’s about as far as the similarities go"

Okereke goes on to mention how he related to Obi's struggles growing up in a religious family. His words suggest that the concepts are loosely based on his experiences but there is a thick line between Obi and Kele as individuals. The narrative seems more effective this way. A more personal and intimate script risked alienating viewers who couldn't relate, or even sympathise with the story. The touch of Nigerian culture within a British play emitted a far more inclusive tone with understandable characters.

An answer given during a Q&A will forever be associated with this piece of theatre. The cast was asked whether the play could have been more political, given the title. Rakie Ayola (who played Grace, Obi's mother) said that the play is already political. There are underlying themes and motifs that weren't explicitly stated but were still very much touched upon. In light of the Windrush Deportation, Leave to Remain served as a gentle but firm reminder of the current political and social climate in the country.

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