A STRANGE LOOP

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _BARBICAN THEATRE.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _9th SEP.

July 9, 2023

images © Marc Brenner.

In a fashion that seems befitting for such a daring, distinctive show, we’re going to start this one both broad and bold.

There are very few shows in memory – recent or otherwise – that manage to succeed in being so profoundly specific yet universally resonant at once as Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop.

On the one hand, its emotionally raw and honest exploration into the creative process and intrapersonal struggles of a self-proclaimed ‘fat, Black, queer’ aspiring musical theatre writer is razor sharp in its definition and scope. There is a lived experience cast on the stage here in unbridled, blistering form. Kyle Ramar Freeman’s immediate and endearing protagonist, Usher, takes us through a disarmingly powerful single-Act tour-de-force stacked with prejudice, fetishism (of queerness, body size and skin tone), self-loathing, ecclesiastic intolerance and more, that will doubtless speak loudest to its black and queer audiences.

And, as was highlighted during a frank and illuminating post-show Q&A, should absolutely be offered to them as readily and affordably as possible.

And yet, on the other hand, so too is there an undeniable universality and frankness to so much of Loop’s journey of self-discovery and emotional honesty, and so irrepressible a joy and exuberance to its execution, that it makes it an easy recommendation for all.

There’s no shying away from the importance of its message and strength of its voice, though. A Strange Loop almost dares you to lull into a false sense of comfort or apathy. ‘Butt f*cking’, dehumanisation and liberal use of the ’n’ word as both endearment and insult abound. Fresh trauma or anguish is injected at almost every turn, as Usher weaves a metafictive journey of crafting his own musical project that, for character and audience both, comes to feel like creativity via self-therapy.

A cycle of success – Since debuting off-Broadway in 2019, Michael R. Jackson‘s metafictional marvel has landed with a nigh-unstoppable momentum of cultural, critical and audience acclaim. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020, the 2021 Broadway transfer would then go on to garner every major ‘Best Musical’ award going, including at the prestigious Tony and Drama Desk Awards.  

If its metafictional hijinks and its wheeling around identity issues are not entirely original in approach, they’re no less genius or affecting in execution. Usher is joined on stage throughout by a cast of six ‘Thoughts’ – manifestations of his psyche and place within modern society. Some are literal and immediate – sexual ambivalence, self-loathing etc. – whilst others float more nebulously around matters financial and familial. What binds them all is the witty, biting fashion with which they are employed throughout, and the glorious company that bring them to life.

“If its metafictional hijinks and its wheeling around identity issues are not entirely original in approach, they’re no less genius or affecting in execution.”

As Loop charges through its hour and forty-minute runtime, Jackson’s music and lyrics don’t waste the promise of exploring Usher and his toils through the medium of the musical. It manages to be both immeasurably uplifting and a bit of a downer at once; the numbers bandying between show-stopping and glitzy to searing and soul-searching. Director Stephen Brackett keeps his feet on the pedal and does a solid job of guiding us through the at-times dizzyingly blurring lines between the literal and figurative. As we see Usher’s ‘big, black and queer-ass’ musical take shape, discerning what is ‘real’ and what is part of Usher’s heightened reconstructions isn’t always immediately available, but the emotional resonance and message are never lost.

A cycle of success – Since debuting off-Broadway in 2019, Michael R. Jackson‘s metafictional marvel has landed with a nigh-unstoppable momentum of cultural, critical and audience acclaim. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2020, the 2021 Broadway transfer would then go on to garner every major ‘Best Musical’ award going, including at the prestigious Tony and Drama Desk Awards.  

This is all in no small way down to Freeman’s astonishing central turn. Rarely off-stage, he more than delivers on the big vocal asks, but is perhaps even more impressive in the honesty and rawness of his take on a role that asks for big, often whiplash-inducing emotional about-turns. Whether heartbreakingly lamenting his choice of a grimy, abusive one-night stand, timidly jostling with his ‘Thought’ co-stars, sassily channeling his ‘Inner White Girl’, or sending up gospel evangelist types in deliciously broad, comedic strokes, it’s an absolute barnstormer of a performance.

“…an absolute barnstormer of a performance.”

He’s surrounded by excellence, too. It would be churlish to single out any of the six-strong ‘Thoughts’, all deserving of extra kudos for being on multi-role duty as they are, and each is given plenty of moments and set pieces within which to shine. When they come together collectively, such as during a side-splitting cultural ombudsman for the creative output of Tyler Perry, featuring the likes of Harriet “motherf*ckin’” Tubman, Jimmy Baldwin, Whitney Houston, and even an Oscar-wielding Solomon Northup a la 12 Years a Slave, it’s utterly electric. And how gratifying, not to mention a privilege, to be witness to such a bold, distinctive musical not only speaking to, but also delivered by, a cast consistently exclusively of superlative black talent. Nathan Armarkwei-Larya, Eddie Elliot, Sharlene Hector, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, Yeukayi Ushe and Jean-Luke Worrell were all superlative thourhgout in the performance reviewed. They are a manic whirlwind of vibrancy and character around Freeman’s soulful centre.

A review of A Strange Loop could easily run double, treble the length as afforded here. There’s more that could be said of the sheer ballsy, unfiltered hutzpah of where Jackson is willing to go, and what all involved are willing to bring so truthfully to the stage. Of appraising its completely-deserved Pulitzer gong for Drama, and how it has already ensconced itself amongst the great pieces depicting the creative process and person. And there’s just something exquisite about bearing witness to a show with so much grit in its teeth and gumption in its stride landing amidst a sea of vanilla and beige.

But above all, A Strange Loop is fierce. Fiercely unique, bitingly funny, ferociously honest and relentlessly inspired. You will likely find yourself caught in your own strange loop of laughter and tears throughout, and come away – after its bravely unconventional, no-easy-answers finale – feeling like Usher’s marvellous musical project has if not necessarily redefined, then certainly reminded, of the true possibility, power and impact of storytelling via the medium of the musical.

Few shows arrive with such perspective, individuality and bombast. Blisteringly gritty yet infectiously uplifting at once, here is an impressive, important musical experience that demands to be seen and heard. Give yourself over to Jackson and Freeman’s captivating ‘loop’ of identity, creativity, anguish and joy.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

why not give us a follow on instagram?

It’s four filthy, fishy and fabulous stars for @unfortunatemusical from @kylebpedley, which he calls a ‘deceptively quite clever, and certainly original’ parody, with ‘a fierce and commanding central turn’ from @shawnahamic! 💜🐙🦀⚓️🎭🎶

You can read Kyle’s full review on the TWE site (link in bio), and can catch ‘Unfortuante’ at @brumhippodrome until Saturday, and then at @wolvesgrand in July! 

#unfortunate #musical #unfortunatemusical #thelittlemermaid #disney #parody #funny #whatson #birmingham #wolverhampton #twe #review #thingsweenjoy
It ain’t ogre ‘til the green lady sings… @shrek_uk is at @thealexbham this week, and @kylebpedley calls it ‘funny, goofy and silly’, with ‘a really excellent cast’… 🧅🫏🧚🐉🏰🎭🎶

Head over to the TWE site (link in bio) to read Kyle’s review in full, and catch the swamp at the Alex until Sun 14th April!

#shrek #shrekmusical #shrekthemusical #theatre #musicaltheatre #review #birmingham #whatson #twe #thingsweenjoy
It’s four tropical, sun-kissed stars for Debbie Isitt’s @soluckymusical from @kylebpedley, which runs at @thealexbham this week! ☀️🏖️🕶️🎶 

Head on over to the TWE site (link in bio) for our full review, and catch the show in Birmingham until 6th April before it jets off for the rest of its UK tour! ✈️ 

#IShouldBeSoLucky #IShouldBeSoLuckyMusical #musical #musicaltheatre #review #uktour #stockaitkenwaterman #kylie #kylieminogue #theatre #stagey #thingsweenjoy #twe
The ‘cultural phenomenon’ flies into Brum ‘with the force of a house-hurling hurricane’ and ‘a cast that will blow your silver slippers right off’ - it’s 5 glowing stars for @wickeduk from @kylebpedley! 

Head on over to the TWE site (link in bio) for the full review, and catch ‘Wicked’ at @brumhippodrome until 7th April, before it flies off to other venues on tour!

#wicked #theatre #birmingham #birminghamhippodrome #whatson #easter #wickeduk #wickedontour #uktour #review #fivestars #twe #thingsweenjoy
It’s 167 shots… sorry, four sizzling stars from @kylebpedley for the UK tour of @bonnieclydeldn, which had its gala press night at @wolvesgrand on Tuesday evening!

Head on over to the TWE site (link in bio) to read Kyle’s full review, and you can catch this ‘sexy, showy’ production on tour at various theatres and venues across the UK now!

#bonnieandclyde #bonnieandclydemusical #musical #review #theatre #uktour #wolverhampton #westmidlands #whatson
It’s four stars from @kylebpedley for the ‘delightful’ Ben and Imo, now playing at @thersc’s Swan Theatre until April 6th.

Head on over to the TWE site (link in bio) for Kyle’s full review of what he calls an ‘immaculately performed two-hander‘ with ‘two stellar, absorbing performances’…

#review #theatre #rsc #royalshakespearecompany #benandimo #benjaminbritten #imogenholst #markravenhill #ericawhyman #stratford #stratforduponavon #swantheatre #review #twe #thingsweenjoy