J’Ouvert review – the history of Notting Hill carnival comes to life

·2 min read

J’Ouvert evokes the spirit of carnival from its first, thumping beat: the ground-shaking thunder of music, the sweaty crush of crowds, the feathers and the floats with friends dancing on them.

We land in the thick of the Notting Hill carnival, just a few months after the nearby Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, though the focus of the play is the heritage and politics of this specific street party. Nads (the dominant friend, played by Gabrielle Brooks) and Jade (tough, protective, played with grit by Sapphire Joy) take us through their day, from Nads’ ambition to become dancing queen to Jade’s desire to mobilise and speak out. There are stories of leering, drunken men who exoticise or grope them; encounters with the older Caribbean community; and observations of the wealthy contingent that have gentrified the area. There are sparks in the girls’ friendship, too, when Nisha (Annice Boparai) joins them, though she remains a flat character; a middle-class do-gooder, hoping to share their intimacies.

This melange makes for some good moments in Yasmin Joseph’s play but the production as a whole feels diffuse and underpowered. Directed by Rebekah Murrell, it was first performed at Theatre503 in 2019, and producer Sonia Friedman has brought it to the West End as part of the Re:Emerge season, showcasing emerging writers, which is a bold and laudable venture.

Some scenes are compelling, especially an encounter between the girls and two men that leads to sexual threat and bullying. There is a poignant silence to mark the tragedy at Grenfell, and a heartwarming skit between two older Caribbean men. Joseph’s writing, in its best moments, contains poetry, but the actors seem to shout out their lines too often and scenes are rushed when they could have much more potency if slowed down.

There are potentially interesting arguments about class, cultural appropriation and Gen-Z activism to be found in the clashes between the friends, but they could have been further developed. The music (by DJ Zuyane Russell, also on stage) is loud and infectious and the friends burst into dance every time they hear it, which often feels like it interrupts the story, drowning out the emotional intensities and vulnerabilities.

Related: 60 years of the Notting Hill carnival – in pictures

One plotline features Claudia Jones (1915-64), an activist who helped found the Notting Hill carnival and who is channelled by Nads and turns up at her most needy moments. She appears like a cliched goddess, replete with what look like petals around her feet, and these interludes of magical realism also feel like interruptions.

During lockdown, J’Ouvert was filmed for the BBC’s Lights Up season and while that version, too, felt slow to start, it was more transporting than this live show and suggested the play’s potential to hold a much greater power.

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