Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Theatre review: Choir Boy

The cross-dressing black American playwright Tarrell Alvin McCraney first made his name with a well-received trilogy of plays. Unfortunately I didn't see those, and only caught up with his work for his last two plays - both of which were pretty universally panned. So would his return to the Royal Court also prove a return to form, and help me see (although I didn't hate the other two plays, I wasn't blown away either) what the fuss was about?

Choir Boy takes place in an all-male, all-black US prep school, where the Headmaster (Gary McDonald) tries to juggle the tensions of a hormone-filled building with keeping the alumni happy and their all-important donations coming in. And this is a school board that's easily offended: As the play begins they're demanding he punish Pharus (Dominic Smith) because he briefly looked behind him while singing the school song at commencement.

Pharus1 is unapologetically effeminate, catty, and sometimes coldly ambitious. He's not hugely popular with the students but not that unpopular either - his distraction during the song was due to homophobic remarks being muttered behind him, but aggressive Bobby (Eric Kofi Abrefa) and his sidekick Junior (Kwayedza Kureya) seem to be in a minority: For his senior year, Pharus has been elected leader of the popular (and hugely important to the donors) gospel choir, which as well as these three boys includes his roommate AJ (Khali Best) and aspiring preacher David (Aron Julius.) The play takes us through this final school year, looking at how having an openly, if not yet entirely comfortably, gay teenager in class affects not just him but those around him.

Ultz has designed an immersive traverse set in the Upstairs theatre, with a bedroom at one end, changing room at the other, and a catwalk in between, but Dominic Cooke's energetic production also sees the cast clambering over chairs and popping up amongst the audience. The young cast give impressive performances even if a couple of them betray a lack of confidence from time to time. Where there's no visible nerves is in the harmonies, they're a quintet of strong singers and a lot of work has obviously been put into rehearsing their songs. These crop up both as part of the story and occasional musical interludes, as well as providing context for some of the play's ventures into the importance of spirituality in the boys' lives.

Choir Boy is certainly stronger than the last two McCraney plays I've seen, with some powerful themes balanced out with a sense of humour, but it's not without its problems. One thing I've always found about the playwright is a lack of focus, and it's the case here again: The script feels a bit flabby in places - it's a risk of these kinds of stories spread out over a year, and perhaps I should have been thinking of it as more of a character study, but nearly an hour in I did find myself wishing the play would get on with telling us what the central story arc was.

David Burke provides a nice change of dynamic as Dr. Pendleton, the gruff former headmaster of the school who's come out of retirement to teach "Creative Thinking" for reasons that are rather nebulous. He's good, but like a lot of things about the play there's something formulaic about his "initially resented new teacher who proves inspirational" story. In a lengthy section in his class, Pharus debunks the theory that the Negro Spirituals they sing are coded messages between slaves, and argues that they should instead be revered for the spiritual meaning they still have. It's on-theme and tells us something about the character's intelligence but it's essentially a protracted aside. I'd have preferred McCraney to have spent more time on the contradiction of Pharus being flamboyantly gay while also clearly having the most genuine faith in both their religion and what their school is meant to stand for - the idea of the limp wrist god gave him, which is briefly touched on. So while there's a lot to recommend Choir Boy, I did find it quite a frustrating watch as well.

Choir Boy by Tarrell Alvin McCraney is booking until the 6th of October at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 2 hours straight through.

1McCraney seems to have a fondness for giving his protagonists that name as it also cropped up in American Trade - are those of us who've seen both meant to infer a connection between the choir boy and that play's rent boy?

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