Young Vic, London Until Jan 26, 2hrs 45mins
Marvel’s blockbuster movie Black Panther stars the 25-year-old British actress Letitia Wright who, I’m told, steals every single scene she’s in.
The sequel is already lined up and mega-stardom beckons. As Ms Wright will be in a cinema near you for the rest of her career, best to see her in the theatre while you can.
She’s rivetingly good in this 2012 play written by her Black Panther co-star, the American-Zimbabwean actress-writer Danai Gurira.
Danai Gurira’s play The Convert is a satisfyingly old-fashioned affair set in 1890s Zimbabwe. Her Black Panther co-star Letitia Wright is rivetingly good as the convert of the title (above)
The drama, a satisfyingly old-fashioned affair with three acts and a plot, is set in Salisbury in Rhodesia (now Harare in Zimbabwe) in the 1890s.
Jekesai (Wright) is a young convert to the Roman Catholic Church under the eye of an uptight black missionary called Chilford. He has rechristened her Ester, stopped her speaking her own language and ‘de-tribalised’ her.
In a way, this is a Rhodesian version of My Fair Lady. The Professor Higgins character – Chilford – is played by the rising star Paapa Essiedu. On the subject of ancestor worship, he warns his young charge: ‘Do not under any circumstances talk to the dead.’
Who needs white men with him around? He proudly speaks the Queen’s English, albeit with a shaky grasp of its idioms: ‘You must have fallen out of your wits.’ He often sounds like a Two Ronnies sketch.
Though you never actually see a white man, everything in the play is about the impact of colonisation. African culture, costume, language and beliefs, all are suppressed in the name of Christ, who hangs on the Cross downstage.
The world starts to wobble after Chilford’s old friend – a rapist played by Ivanno Jeremiah – is murdered in a clash with rebellious locals angry at the British. By the end, everything has fallen apart.
The play is less a finger wag against colonialism, more a reflection on the shallow roots of Africa’s Westernisation.
In director Ola Ince’s smashing cast, Wright absolutely glows as the naive convert, and Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo is hilariously posh as Prudence, Chilford’s educational equal. Meanwhile, the housekeeper (Pamela Nomvete) prefers to stick to the old magic.
What a rewarding evening this is: often funny, always absorbing, and the acting is fabulous.
Just So – The Musical
Barn Theatre, Cirencester Until Sun, 2hrs
This lovely 200-seat theatre in Cirencester, in the heart of the Cotswolds, closes its first season with a musical written by that terribly British duo George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories.
Kipling’s ‘great grey-green, greasy Limpopo’ is perceptibly present here. I loved, too, the biodiversity. Zebra and Giraffe are a pair of girls from the watering holes of darkest Essex, pursued by randy chaps Jaguar and Leopard.
The Cotswolds theatre closes its first season with a musical adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. And it brims with wit, enchantment and invention. Above: Duncan Drury
Rhinoceros is a full-fronted diva, and there’s a funky, modern Parsee-man who lends a ska beat to the eclectic score.
The actor-musicians work like billy-o, with Lewis Cornay’s curious Elephant’s Child and the flightless Kolokolo Bird (the excellent, downbeat Molly Lynch) giving the young ’uns in the audience a pair to root for as they take on Pau Amma, the evil giant crab (voiced by a booming Matthew Kelly).
The avuncular ‘Best Beloveds’ voice of Kipling is wisely preserved. Drewe’s pithy lyrics are drowned out occasionally by the over-cranked volume in Kirk Jameson’s beautifully lit production. But this show brims with wit, enchantment and invention.
Caroline, Or Change
Playhouse Theatre, London Until Apr 6, 2hrs 35mins
Sharon D Clarke is sensational in the title role of Tony Kushner’s strange, beautiful musical
This strange, beautiful musical set in Louisiana in 1963 is about a black maid, Caroline, who does the laundry in the boiling basement of a well-meaning Jewish family.
The family’s eight-year-old boy leaves her dimes in his trouser pockets, starting a chain of domestic upsets, staged against the backdrop of the civil rights movement.
Writer Tony Kushner’s seriousness of purpose is complemented by Jeanine Tesori’s playful score (you get Tamla Motown, gospel and Jewish clarinet), in which domestic appliances come delightfully to life.
Abiona Omonua is superb as Caroline’s angry daughter. But it is Sharon D Clarke’s sensational central performance – a picture of bottled rage, bruised dignity and sheer overwork – that makes this unmissable.
Kiss Me, Kate
Crucible, Sheffield Until Sat, 3hrs
Cole Porter’s 1948 musical has a swooningly lovely score, and a neat premise: a warring couple star in a schlocky musical version of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, paralleling their characters.
But just as any modern Shrew must work out how to tackle the brutal abuse of the main female character in the play, so today, any Kiss Me, Kate must wrangle with the show’s own outdated elements – most notably, when Fred/Petruchio beats Lilli/Katharine’s behind so hard she can’t sit down.
While both Edward Baker-Duly and Rebecca Lock (above) impress as Fred and Lilli in this adaptation of the tricky Cole Porter musical, you don’t fully believe their chemistry
It’s fairly typical of Paul Foster’s bright but somewhat hollow production that it fudges the moment by just going straight to black.
It’s hard to root for the unrepentant Fred, and the pair need a lot of chemistry to make it work. But while Rebecca Lock has a magnificent, creamy voice, and Edward Baker-Duly possesses a certain rakish charm, you don’t fully believe they’re inseparable sparring partners. In general, the cast struggle to nail the snappy rhythm of the screwball dialogue.
They sure know how to move, however: in bustling ensemble numbers, Matt Flint’s choreography ignites the stage, especially the sizzling Too Darn Hot. Dex Lee particularly stands out, combining acrobatic moves with a silky-smooth demeanour and a wicked glint in his eye.
Soho Theatre, London Until Jan 19, 1hr 30mins
In music journalist Neil McCormick’s memoir I Was Bono’s Doppelgänger, he recalls the unique torment of being a flailing pop hopeful and watching his schoolmates shoot to global fame as U2.
The book inspired this play – and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (of Porridge and The Likely Lads fame) have made the most of its blackly comic premise.
This charming musical play, inspired by the memoir by Neil McCormick (a school chum of Bono and U2) stars Niall McNamee (above with Dennis Conway) as the tortured failed pop star
The farcical set-up – a few creative tweaks have been made to McCormick’s account – sees Neil kidnapped by a Dublin gangster, Danny, who wants him to write his biography.
But flashbacks to schooldays gigs and disappointing meetings in London mean we learn more about Neil’s thwarted attempts to crack the music industry than we do about Danny’s skulduggery.
Niall McNamee gently sends up the tortured artist as Neil, and Shane O’Regan nails Bono’s spacey swagger (although an ego as developed as the one in question could have done with a more robust ribbing). However, Ciaran Dowd’s oafish, dad-dancing henchman is the comic heart of the performance.
The delivery is at times unpolished but audiences on the hunt for a charming, musical play that explores a serious subject – failure – without taking itself too seriously will still find what they’re looking for here.