Three new plays about place and racism...
“The English are so polite. It is a joy to be reprimanded by them.”
The Overseas Student
Out West is a collection of three one actor plays by three renowned playwrights, linked by each play illustrating differing aspects of racism and alluding to the area where the Lyric Theatre is today.
One is about a mixed race marriage, one about a black woman’s fight for self esteem and one about a law student from overseas arriving in Britain in the reign of Queen Victoria.
Tanika Gupta has contributed The Overseas Student about a man (Esh Alladi) coming from India to study to be a barrister at the Inns of Court in 1886. Tanika Gupta found that the subject of her play lived in Barons Court, close by where the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith is today but which would have been in the planning stage in 1886 on another site. He mentions seeing a production of As You Like It with Henry Irving as Orlando and Ellen Terry as Rosalind at the Lyceum Theatre so we can assume he had an interest in theatre.
We hear about racism on the ship when he is told he is on the European Deck and sent below. His mother, anxious that he is leaving his wife and child in India while he studies, tells him “Not to touch meat, women or alcohol.”
There are vivid descriptions of his first impressions of England, some of them very amusing. He finds the vegetables offered to him by his landlady very bland until he discovers one of London’s vegetarian restaurants. He comments on Christianity and on the famous Matchgirl Strike in the East End in 1888.
I wondered how different it is nowadays for international students coming to the UK to study. Despite the growth of media, I suspect many experiences would be similar.
Each play takes place on the same set by Soutra Gilmour, a giant wooden staircase with each riser forming the top of an increasingly large doorway. Rachel O’Riordan directs with Diane Page and Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting focuses on mood.
Simon Stephens’s play Blue Water and Cold and Fresh sees Jack, a white teacher (Tom Mothersdale) visiting the five places his father, and latterly himself, once lived in. Jack is a teacher happily married to another teacher Jennifer who is black and they have a two year old son.
Some of Blue Water and Cold and Fresh is autobiographical as Simon Stephens reflects on his life in and around Hammersmith and some of the play was inspired by a conversation he had with the actor Emmanuella Cole.
Jack witnesses the casual racism directed at his wife: the stop and search, the security guard following her, but not him in a store
Where the autobiography may stop is where Jack tries to make sense of how his father became so deeply racist. Is it about self loathing and alcoholism? Is it an inability to cope with otherness? The answer is that none of it makes sense and the denouement is as shocking as a slap in the face.
Roy Williams’s Go, Girl! is about Donna (Ayesha Antoine) a security guard in her mid 30s who, when she was at school in North West London, was in a group of sixth formers who were visited by Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama’s speech to them urged them to be the best they could be.
Donna is jealous of her friend Dani who has a career as a photographer or visual artist, as Dani describes herself in her success story. As Donna talks about her anger at Dani, she jerks her chin and glares at us. “I would have levelled her – I am not a violent person!” conveys the strength of her feeling put down by Dani.
Donna had a baby at 16 and Sienna is now a teenager. Sienna will give Donna reason to be extremely proud of her as Sienna intervenes in a remarkable way using all the resources and courage her single parent, mother, has given her. This is a testament as to how a schoolgirl, “young gifted and black”, can make a real difference.
The Overseas Student
Written by Tanika Gupta
Blue Water and Cold and Fresh
Written by Simon Stephens
Written by Roy Williams
Co-Directors: Rachel O’Riordan and Diane Page
Designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting Designer: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Composer and Sound Designer: Simon Slater
Collaborator for Blue Water and
Cold and Fresh: Emmanuella Cole
Running Time: 51 minutes, 49 minutes, 26 minutes
with an interval between play 1 and play 2.
Booking to 24th July 2021
London W6 0QL
Box Office: 020 8741 6850
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at a preview performance
at the Lyric Hammersmith
on 24th June 2021