Yasmin Joseph’s excellent and ambitious debut play follows three young women at the Notting Hill Carnival
There’s an invisible crush of dancing, surging people filling Theatre 503’s small stage, pushing up against the three women who perform Yasmin Joseph’s ‘J’Ouvert’. This is a play that makes Notting Hill Carnival feel real, and rests all its tensions on the dancing shoulders of these female friends.
Nadine wants to be the face of Carnival – the first dark-skinned woman to win that honour in years – and win that sweet sweet trip to St Lucia. Played by Sharla Smith, she’s decked in sequins and feathers – and a dusting of church-girl wholesomeness she’s doing her best to shake off. She’s driven by the spirit of Claudia Jones, founder of Carnival, who appears to her and spurs her on through the noise and crowds. Her less naive friend Jade (Sapphire Joy) coaches Nadine through her dance routine, and defends her from the men who hit on her, getting called a ‘bitch’ for her justified cynicism. But Nadine knows that she’s losing Jade to Nisha (Annice Boparai). Nisha is a middle-class activist who’s persuading Jade to hand out flyers for West London Rising. She’s a newcomer to Carnival, and instead of getting swept up in its magic, she wants to use it as a platform to slam gentrification.
Joseph’s script is so rich; in symbolism, in intergenerational and intercommunity tensions, in its perceptive commentary on gentrification and sexism, all told in language that shows how Carnival’s eruption of dancing, community and pride is transformative in a city that marginalises people of colour. Director Rebekah Murrell and movement director Shelley Maxwell create a fluid production whose scenes run together; its performers become the genial old crocs who man a merch stand and share their memories of ’60s Carnival, or the pursed-lipped white local residents who draw their curtains to its outbreak of colour and soca, or posturing young guys who act as tough as their egos are fragile.
All the while, Nadine and Nisha battle for Jade’s attention, representing opposing perspectives on the role of Carnival. Just when you think these three women are a little archetypal, their positions fixed, Jade delivers a speech that shifts everything. ‘J’Ouvert’ is set during a single afternoon, and that gives it the strength and coherence to handle huge ideas, line them up and make them jostle together, moving in time with Carnival’s crowds.