The marvellously-named Cush Jumbo is one of theatre’s brightest rising stars: charismatic, beautiful, and inspirational in her refusal to be defined by race or gender: indeed, she recently got an Olivier nomination for her portrayal of Mark Antony in the Donmar’s ‘Julius Caesar’, and has stated in interviews that she’d love to play Hamlet.
Nonetheless, likeable as she is, there’s a little bit too much of her in ‘Josephine and I’. Which is a strange thing to say about a self-penned one-woman show, perhaps, but the clue is in the title.
The ‘Josephine’ bit, in which she channels her childhood heroine, the great black dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, is wonderful – a lively, fiesty, full-throttle piece of biographical storytelling that’s a joy to watch.
But in a fussy move that’s typical of director Phyllida Lloyd, there’s a second strand to the show in which Jumbo plays herself (‘I’), breaking the fourth wall to chat away matily to the audience. It’s a neat device to introduce things without the contrivance of having to do so in character. But as it wears on, Jumbo’s fleeting confessions about her personal and professional struggles don’t really seem to gel into anything greater, and are undermined by the fact it’s difficult to believe that most of what she’s saying is true (which may be the point, but to what end?).
This feels like a zippy one-hour show that’s been conceptualised into a more awkward 90-minute one. But when it’s good – which it frequently is – it’s very good. Huge in Paris while suffering racist abuse back home, Baker had a remarkable life. And Jumbo conjures her winningly, an energetic ingénue, propelled through life by optimism, self-belief and a great pair of dancing feet.
By Andrzej Lukowski