Thursday 25 July 2013

Theatre review: Josephine and I

The first of two consecutive playwrighting debuts from popular stage actors at the Bush, Josephine and I also sees Cush Jumbo take to the stage in her one-woman show that's actually about two women: The "I" in the title is a fictionalised version of herself, a young black actress in the present day who's just auditioned (having been recalled seven times now) for an American cop show that could make her a star; and she's often distracted by thoughts of this job opportunity and how it impacts on her personal life, from the story she's actually trying to tell: That of another black performer, except in those days the word would have been "coloured" as we're going back to the mid-20th century to meet a woman who found ways to overcome the limitations put on her race, the vaudeville legend Josephine Baker.

Jumbo plays Baker from the ages of 13 to 69, through numerous marriages and divorces, and a taste for stardom discovered first in small clubs and then in a short-lived, all-black Broadway revue. An offer to move to Paris sees her find the stardom she seeks, along with a more relaxed attitude to her colour - but it only serves to make it even harsher when she returns to her own country and still faces inequality.

Although the modern-day actress who tells the tale is fictional, there's surely a lot that's autobiographical about her fascination with Baker which begins when, as a child, she realises that somewhere in the Golden Age of Hollywood there's a star that looks like her. Maybe I'm wrong but this feels like a labour of love rather than an attempt by Jumbo to create a star vehicle for herself - the joy with which she inhabits Baker's idiosyncratic dance style alone suggests someone who's been trying to emulate it since childhood.

Anthony Ward's design has turned the Bush into a cabaret bar, with much of the audience sitting at tables, and despite the heavy subjects that are always being touched upon Josephine and I retains overall the feel of a great evening's entertainment. You certainly come out of it feeling like you know a lot more sides to Baker than the almost-naked dancer pulling faces at the audience. Inspired partly by the sharp shock of returning to new York to headline a show, but still being required to enter the hotel by the back door, Baker goes on to become a major civil rights figure - the only woman invited to speak alongside Martin Luther King - but a controversial one: The memory of her famous banana dance comes back to haunt her as she's accused of pandering to a stereotype she says she was reclaiming.

Jumbo has been fortunate enough to recruit her Julius Caesar director Phyllida Lloyd to bring her piece to the stage, and the experienced hand shows in a piece that avoids a trap of self-penned monologues by not appearing self-indulgent, and staying slick despite a structure that requires the narrator to frequently break character (including by turning up late, or answering her phone.) I'm not sure this attempt to draw parallels between being a black female performer in the 1930s and the 2010s quite pays off, but this is an entertaining and informative show with a great performance carrying it - Jumbo revealing song and dance skills her theatre career so far seems to have underused.

Josephine and I by Cush Jumbo is booking until the 17th of August at the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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