Review by Daz Gale
2023 might not be seeing many big Broadway shows crossing the pond but one has wasted no time in making its London debut, and they don’t come much bigger than A Strange Loop. While its run on Broadway might not have been as long as some had expected, it certainly caused a huge impression in its time, winning a handful of Tony awards. It now hopes to create the same buzz this side of the Atlantic in what is billed as a one-time-only limited season at the Barbican.
A Strange Loop tells the story of Usher – a young, gay, Black writer who is writing a musical about a young, gay, Black writer… writing a musical about a young, gay, Black writer. And thus, we have our strange loop. Throughout the course of the show, Usher has to deal with his own identity, wants and needs as he struggles to accept himself for who he is in a story that will be relatable in parts for many of us.
Written by Michael R. Jackson, this 100 minute one-act show is a marvel to watch, grabbing you instantly from the shows unashamedly brash opening. From then on, the laughs come thick and fast with Jacksons’ writing delighting at every opportunity with some witty observations and graphic language you probably won’t want to take small children to. The hit rate of the jokes is an undoubted success – my face hurt from smiling so much… and then, it stopped.
There is a distinct tone change towards the shows second half as more serious themes rise to the surface – many of these had been the same situations we had previously laughed at but were now seen in a different light. The sudden shift is a bold choice which may prove jarring and divisive to some, but it is admirable in its attempt. Bringing more depth to the writing, elements of it did seem slightly in poor taste as the overlong “gospel play” sequence made me squirming in my seat – but I have no doubt that was the true intent. It’s worth reading up on the trigger warnings before seeing the descent into the more serious nature of the show.
The musical numbers, also written by Michael R. Jackson, are one of the strongest elements of A Strange Loop. With witty lyrics and melodies that feel instantly familiar, it fuses musical theatre and gospel in parts to create something truly wonderful. Musical highlights include opening number ‘Intermission Song’ setting the tone perfectly and the fabulous and filthy ‘Exile In Gayville’. The big upbeat numbers create a lot of fun sequences for the cast of seven to play with, but these musical moments are equally effective when they are more stripped back such as the double header of ballads that closes the show in the emotive ‘Memory Song’ and the rousing title number ‘A Strange Loop’.
The lead role of Usher is played by Kyle Ramar Freeman who wows with a non-stop performance that sees him on stage for the vast majority of the show, aside from the odd (extremely) quick-change. Having understudied the role on Broadway, he shows a great intuition for what works in a performance that sees him completely aligned with the character. With sensational vocals, an unbeatable stage presence and bundles of charisma, he gives a rounded and stunning performance that will effortlessly win the hearts of everybody watching it… even in the more graphic moments.
The other six cast members play Usher’s thoughts – these take the form of self-loathing personified, hookups, his parents, a customer at the theatre he works at and even Whitney Houston (Why not?). Each of the six gets a chance to shine in their own right while also working collectively to bring the bigger numbers to life. It feels strange to say each of the seven cast members manage to be scene-stealing but that is just the remarkable feat that befalls A Strange Loop with a truly phenomenal cast amazing at every turn. Sharlene Hector’s Thought 1 gets her own standout moment in ‘A Sympathetic Ear’ but Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliott, Tendai Humphrey Sitima and Yeukayi Ushe all get satisfying moments in their own right, proving their versatility with some over-the-top characters.
Stephen Brackett’s direction expertly navigates the looming Barbican stage with clever twists including a brilliant reveal in the second half which opens it out further. To that respect, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design is inspired – when mixed with Jen Schriever’s glorious lighting design and Montana Levi Blanco’s costume design, it creates a production that is consistently stimulating visually and, importantly, cohesive in its approach.
One element that will appeal to many people are the musical theatre references. With Usher working at The Lion King, there are plenty of nods to the world of theatre including his family all named after characters from that show, and repeated references to The Color Purple. Whether you are in the world of theatre or a huge theatre lover like myself, these little Easter egg moments are bound to make you grin. My personal favourite line was “Did you see Hamilton?” “I’m poor”.
Watching A Strange Loop, it is clear to see why audiences on Broadway were raving about it, and why it won multiple Tony awards. Michael R. Jacksons writing is exquisite – wickedly funny but full of more depth than it initially appears to create powerful, thought-provoking and emotional moments. Themes of racism, colorism, homophobia and self-loathing are played out sensitively with the initial laughs ebbing away to reveal something a lot more substantial. If the writing is superb, the cast are equally commendable with Kyle Ramar Freeman’s Usher giving a performance to remember. It may provoke an extreme reaction in many people and not all of them may be the most positive but that in itself is the true beauty of theatre.
Bold in its approach, it dares to break the mould and create something that may not always be the most comfortable of watches but is always captivating. For me personally, a couple of moments aside, I loved A Strange Loop immeasurably. It tries to do something different and pulls it off beautifully. It might make you laugh, it might make you cry, it might make you gasp with shock or any other number of emotions. But it is guaranteed to make you feel something – and that is something shows always dream of doing. Whether you love it or hate it, you’re going to remember it – and that in itself makes it a success in my eyes.
A Strange Loop plays at Barbican Theatre until 9th September. Tickets from strangeloopmusical.com
Photos by Marc Brenner