Slave Play, Noel Coward Theatre, 2024
Photo: Helen MurraySlave Play, Noel Coward Theatre, 2024
  • Theatre, Experimental
  • Noël Coward Theatre, Covent Garden
  • Recommended


Slave Play

4 out of 5 stars

Jeremy O Harris’s Broadway smash is ebulliently messy, fiendishly clever, frequently maddening and gloriously different


Time Out says

Jeremy O Harris: ‘Most theatre is boring. I wanted to write something cool’.

‘Is London ready for “Slave Play”?’ run the adverts. It’s a tagline that the smash Broadway play’s larger-than-life author Jeremy O Harris has revealed to essentially be a subtweet directed at a London artistic director who got cold feet over staging it. But it’s also genuinely a fair question, one that echoes the infamous ‘finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen’ 1975 ad campaign – the suggestion in each case being that we’re dealing with something potentially too American for the British mind to handle.

If you genuinely know nothing about ‘Slave Play’ then maybe consider reading up after seeing it, because the original intent was audiences went in blind: its journey to becoming the most Tony-nominated play of all time (until it got dethroned by this year’s ‘Stereophonic’) began with a 2018 off-Broadway run in which the marketing didn’t actually say what the play was about at all.

After six years of hype, it’s possible London is actually over-ready for ‘Slave Play’: the average West End ticket holder will have an idea what’s up when the show apparently begins as a period drama set on a plantation in the antebellum US South. There, three similar, but different sexual scenarios unfurl: a Black female slave (Olivia Washington’s Kaneisha) makes overtures to her slovenly white supervisor (Kit Harington’s Jim); the white mistress of the house (Annie McNamara’s Alana) gears up to peg her chipper mixed-race servant Phillip (Aaron Heffernan); a Black slave (Fisayo Akinade’s Gary) lords it up over a white indentured servant (James Cusati-Moyer’s Dustin) before making him lick his boots.

Each scenario is in its way shocking – the free use of the n word and dynamics that revolve around (to put it very mildly) race-based power imbalances is part of it; but also the fact that everyone seems to at least be mildly enjoying themselves during the great wickedness of American slavery. A slew of minor anachronisms – Gary and Dustin are wearing Calvin Kleins, and are called Gary and Dustin – builds to the big reveal that it’s actually the present day and we’re watching a radical sex therapy course for interracial couples in which the Black partner has lost their libido. 

It’s a lot. And there’s a lot more, as Robert O’Hara‘s interval-free production proceeds to its second act, a long, bizarre therapy session in which the programme’s hopelessly bumbling PHD student creators (Chalia La Tour’s Teá and Irene Sofia Lucio’s Patricia) attempt to get constructive results from the group despite – and this cannot be overstated enough – what a patently terrible idea the programme clearly is. 

‘Slave Play’ – a play about the institution of slavery and about slave roleplay, geddit? – is obviously provocative. But to me it felt more absurdist than actively desperate to get a rise – more Jean Genet than Bruce Norris. Of course that is incredibly easy for me to say as a white person. But the period stuff unquestionably feels very specifically American in a way that gives us some distance from it. Britain is clearly not free from either racism or historical culpability for slavery in America. But it is inevitable that a degree of cultural specificity prevails.

On a less contentious note, the heavy use of therapese in the second act I can imagine landing very differently in New York  - there were points where it gets somewhat vexing even when ironically deployed. Harington’s Jim turns out to be a Brit who can’t stand any of the therapy talk, and for a while his grumpy silence makes him the most relatable character on stage.

Behind the surrealist button pressing, ‘how can they say that?’ moments and some more pleasurably conventional gags (the best is about Dustin identifying as non-white but huffily refusing to say how) there’s a clear and intelligent core argument from Harris. All of the Black and mixed-race partners have attempted (or been forced) to disengage from their Blackness for the sake of fitting in with partners who blithely see their whiteness as the cultural norm. Jim doesn’t really see Kaneisha’s race (or has conditioned himself not to) but that’s not open-mindedness, it’s erasure, denying that her experiences as a Black woman are part of her. The therapy is absurd, obviously, but forcing them to acknowledge that they are different to each other is meaningful, if eye-wateringly problematic.

Harris has a great eye for character. The play gradually homes in on Jim and Kaneisha as the leads, but has a lot of fun with the smaller characters on the way - I loved McNamara’s Karen-ish Alana, who met Phillip after he’d been drafted in to indulge her ex husband’s cuckold fantasy. 

O’Hara direction is a little starchy but I think maybe that’s all to the good - you don’t necessarily want this play to flow too easily, it’s meaningful that it resists frothiness and easy laughs. Clint Ramos’s mirrored set is nifty - the fact we can see ourselves hazily reflected affords a sense of complicity, but also the distorted reflections of paintings of a plantation is just a pretty cool way to lightly convey the setting without getting bogged down in it.

In the end I felt ‘Slave Play’ is really made by its dynamite final scene, which solely features Wahington’s Kaneisha and Harington’s Jim. Intimate, tender, brave, repellant and gut wrenching, it restates and underlines the play’s themes, but rather than use audacious setpieces it’s fuelled by great acting, a real sense of empathy for Kaneisha, and Harris finally allowing his play to adopt a more naturalist flow. 

It’s notable that Harris’s ‘other’ major play ‘“Daddy”’ received warmer notices here than in the US - these things do land differently on either side of the Atlantic, for lots of reasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that applied to this one. Is London ready for ‘Slave Play’? It’s as ready as it’ll ever be, I’d say.


Event website:
Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin's Lane
Tube: Leicester Square
£20-£150. Runs 2hr

Dates and times

You may also like
You may also like
London for less