After months of enforced hiatus, this summer the Lyric Hammersmith reopened with Out West.
The world premiere of three new one-person plays: The Overseas Student by Tanika Gupta, Blue Water and Cold and Fresh by Simon Stephens and Go, Girl by Roy Williams. As a whole, the show – just over two hours in length – was an entertaining smorgasbord of the divergent ways in which the form of the one-person play can be embraced.
Tanika Gupta’s The Overseas Student fictionalises the journey of an eighteen-year-old Gandhi, played by Esh Alladi, from India to England to study law. The one-person play is circular in its structure. It commences with Gandhi on the boat to England and concludes with him on the boat returning to India. In the intervening period, Gandhi develops from blindly idolising British culture to building a critical understanding of imperialism as he asks, “Why is England so wealthy and India so poor?”
The longest of the three plays, The Overseas Student sometimes – the stakes of which felt ill-defined. while Gandhi periodically repeated the mantra “Ram” in the face of temptation, the stakes of the play sometimes seemed to rely on the audience’s knowledge that the character on stage represented Gandhi and their awareness of who this young man would become beyond the play.
Nevertheless, Alladi’s performance was hugely engaging. His multi-roling was clearly defined and comical – a scene in which a British woman tried to seduce Gandhi was particularly entertaining. I also enjoyed the directorial choice to differentiate Gandhi’s voice when speaking as narrator to the audience in received pronunciation, and the accent he exhibited when speaking as Gandhi to other characters in the play. Altogether The Overseas Student was an effective reminder of Britain’s imperial past and the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi.
The second play, Simon Stephens’ Blue Water and Cold and Fresh is set in London in 2020 and follows a nameless white man, played by Tom Mothersdale, whose father has recently died. While Mothersdale’s character reveals that his father has always had racist tendencies, this becomes most obvious when the father rejects his mixed-race grandchild.
It was almost therapeutic to watch a play that reflected on lockdown and last year’s Black Lives Matter protests within a fictional framework. Mothersdale embodies his part with confident ease: his posture and delivery sometimes reminded me of a stand-up comedian, with his pausing and chewing of Stephens’ words almost convincing me that the words were coming to him in the moment. Blue Water and Cold and Fresh was a thought-provoking study of the reality of racism – how far it is ingrained in British culture and how the work to combat it is not yet over.
The night culminated with Roy Williams’ Go, Girl. Like Stephens’ play, Go, Girl is set in London in 2020. Go, Girl introduces us to a very different character – Donna, played by Ayesha Antoine, a Westfield security guard and mother to a teenage daughter. Perhaps the shortest play of the evening, Go, Girl commences with Donna complaining about a recent Zoom school reunion she has been invited to – particularly, her saltiness at a classmate, Danny, becoming a successful photographer, while she works as a security guard. Over the course of the play, however, Donna realises her pride and satisfaction in her own life – particularly in her daughter.
While the plot of Go, Girl initially seemed quite random – primarily tied together by the thematic, and highly comical, anecdotes about life in lockdown – the play concludes with a highly effective reference to an event from last year. By the end, Go, Girl becomes a powerful attestation to some of the everyday strength exhibited by Black women, challenging conceptions such as those encompassed by Danny’s photograph which captioned Black teenage girls as “Lost Girls”. And, throughout, Antoine’s performance is charismatic and effectively embodies the simultaneous strength and vulnerability of this young mother, hoping to do the best by her teenage daughter.
Out West is a sensitive exploration of the lives of individuals in England’s capital city, both past, and present. All three plays reference the geography of London, with The Overseas Student and Blue Water and Cold and Fresh particularly exploring how its streets are entangled with a history of slavery, imperialism, and colonialism.
Blue Water and Cold and Fresh and Go, Girl particularly stood out to me as engaging character studies – Go, Girl, in particular, delving into the thoughts and feelings of a character I have seldom seen represented on stage. Seeing the afterlife of these plays will be interesting – I would particularly like to see Blue Water and Cold and Fresh expanded in length to greater unfold its various plotlines.
Nevertheless, Out West marks an engaging return to live theatre by the Lyric Hammersmith: three plays in one – and I encourage you to book tickets to see which one you like the best.
Out West, runs The Lyric Theatre Hammersmith until 24th July 2021. Find out more and book tickets here.