Friday, 25 January 2019

Theatre review: Leave to Remain

It's mercifully not about Brexit, but the title of Matt Jones and Kele Okereke's new musical Leave to Remain is still enough to bring me out in hives. Instead it's "leave" as in "permission," as the story begins when London-based American Alex's (Billy Cullum) firm decide to relocate their business entirely out of the UK to Abu Dhabi ( I guess it is about Brexit?) His visa is entirely dependent on his job, so if he resigns he'll no longer be entitled to stay in the country. He's built his life here and the fastest obvious way to stay is to marry his boyfriend Obi (Tyrone Huntley.) But their relationship is very new so it's an extreme step, and despite quickly agreeing to it Obi is emotionally very distant so it's hard to be sure how he really feels about his partner. Besides, formalising his relationship will mean Obi confronting his family and the way they reacted when they found out he was gay.

Although still close to his sister Chichi (Aretha Ayeh,) Obi is only just about on speaking terms with his parents, a tentative peace after his father (Cornell S. John) threw him out of the house at the age of 16.

Not that Alex knows any of this, as Obi's fear of intimacy runs so deep he's never hinted at it to him. So when Alex's parents invite themselves over for the wedding and demand to meet their new in-laws, everyone is set for an uncomfortable confrontation. Director-choreographer Robby Graham opens the show explosively with a dance sequence that flies through the couple catching each other's eye in a crowd and the first few months of their relationship, before Alex's visa issues forces their hand as to how quickly to take things. But the centre of the story is in how both have been moulded by their respective families. Obi's father might have been outright abusive, but where Alex's liberal parents were much more supportive, his controlling mother Diane (Johanne Murdock) has been overbearing all his life, and never misses an opportunity to remind him of a drug addiction he's been in recovery from for the last five years.

Although after a while I didn't find quite enough variety in Okereke's songs, Graham does weave the music and dance very fluidly into the story. As love stories go Leave to Remain is quite unusual, in that Obi's emotional unavailability means we never really know how the pair actually feel about each other. Instead what we're given to root for isn't necessarily a happy ever after, so much as them getting the time to find out what their relationship could become, and to me that's an interesting new take on the Green Card romance format.

The middle of the show does feel a bit muddied; Obi is the more interesting character so the amount of time spent with Alex in Narcotics Anonymous and possibly relapsing starts to drag. And while Arun Blair-Mangat as manipulative friend Damien and Sandy Batchelor as his on-off boyfriend Raymond give strong supporting performances, a late attempt to equate their relationship to the others on stage is clearly just there to add bodies to the big group number. But if Jones and Okereke's writing could feel a bit more streamlined Graham's production really injects life into it. Huntley leads a strong cast that's completed by Rakie Ayola as Obi's mother and Martin Fisher as Alex's father, both caught in the middle between their respective spouses' and sons' conflicts. It may have its flaws and often deal in quite bleak subjects, but Leave to Remain ultimately ends up strangely uplifting. So it definitely can't be about Brexit.

Leave to Remain by Matt Jones and Kele Okereke is booking until the 16th of February at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

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