A drag to redemption

Last week, in a Mrs Merton style ‘heated debate’, a friend, who describes himself as an “art’s agnostic” who prefers technology to thespians, piped up with “What is the point of fringe theatre?” The tone of the question was a deliberate ploy to provoke a response, so being the shy blushing flower that I am, I did. I invited him, although in the end I had to drag him kicking (he wanted to watch football in the pub) to the New Diorama Theatre to see Passion Fruit. A play about a young London lad of Jamaican heritage, brought up on a London housing estate who comes out as gay. Written by Dior Clarke (and co-writer Stephanie Martin), who also plays the lead character Romeo, it is heartfelt and courageous confronting the bigotry that continues to pollute conversations about same sex relationships and as Clarke makes clear, this often comes from within his own community, both parochial and cultural.
Romeo lays his cards on the table from the outset telling his mum that he’s gay and then addresses us with a declaration that that this is a love story not a coming out story. We see young Romeo having fun with his beloved mum much to the chagrin of his strict father who is livid at his wife for painting his nails. Cue the macho man talk of his son being a boy and behaving like a man like his brother Perry. Life changes for Romeo when he meets Alan, they are immediately attracted to each other. They both have dreams. While Romeo pursues unbridled hedonism, brother Perry ends up in jail and the tragicomic story includes a posse of recognisable characters who make you laugh, cry and want to kick up the jacksy.
This subject matter has been tackled previously by other black writers (Rikki Beadle-Blair is the production’s dramaturg) and those who have seen Beautiful Thing (film or play) may think it sounds vaguely familiar but here it is an explosion of anger, resistance and humorous celebration, very much a play of its time. Through gang violence and doomed relationships and his deep dive into the gay scene Romeo arrives at this moment as ready as he will ever be to share his story and also ready to challenge those who dare to damn his lifestyle.
The cast of three, that also includes Charlotte Gosling and Hayden Mampasi are terrific slipping in and out of characters with ease and a knowing understanding of each portrayal. They may appear somewhat stereotypical but they are wholly believable in words and appearance. The choreography by Kate Husband is dynamic and sexy with raucous music for accompaniment and direction by Melina Namdar keeps it tight and on point.
Flawed maybe, but unrelenting in its honesty and effervescence, this is a play that has a big heart and a fragile soul and the type of new writing that must be encouraged and nurtured. Theatres don’t need diversity and inclusion policies, they need these productions. My sceptical friend stood, applauded and cheered. He is partially redeemed and I rest my case.
Natalia Mujendra is less passionate about a whodunnit…
Death Drop (Criterion Theatre) is a murder mystery set on Tuck Island where five exuberant characters have been invited, by a mysterious host, to celebrate the 10th wedding anniversary of Charles and Diana. Let’s cut to the chase, this is no Murder on the Orient Express but far more a stiletto and lipstick lush fest featuring a cast of drag artistes who do their darndest to convince us of their acting talent when in reality they’re so much better at being bitchy, camp and outrageous. Not helped by a plot that goes astray and is overlong the best moments are when they resort to type with put downs and asides that range from lavatorial to lascivious.
The inclusion of songs add little and to be sat watching a gaggle of drag queens strutting their stuff should not have me looking at my watch but it did, not helped by loose direction which accentuates the flimsiness of it all. Nevertheless, for too long drag hid in the shadows of pubs and seedy bars so it’s about time it ventured into mainstream theatre. Just a shame this one dragged on too long.

Passion Fruit – www.newdiorama.com
Death Drop – www.criterion-theatre.co.uk

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