Review by Sam Waite
Jade Anouka’s career hasn’t quite made her a household name, but her many forays in film, TV and theatre have won her much acclaim and left fans hungry for more of her work. Alongside series regular roles alongside Sheridan Smith (ITV’s Cleaning Up) and Idris Elba (Netflix’s Turn Up Charlie), she received rave reviews for her turns in Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of all-female Shakespeare productions, starred alongside Jonathan Bailey and (briefly) Taron Egerton in Cock and now, following strong reviews across the pond, brings her playwriting debut HEART to Brixton House.
A blend of one-woman play, poetry reading and intimate conversation, Anouka is joined on stage only by her wife, musician and champion beatboxer Grace Savage. Over Savage’s live accompaniment, Anouka opens by clarifying that yes, a black woman wrote this show, and a black woman is performing this show, but this is not a show rooted in her blackness, or one inherently connected to her womanhood. This is simply her, Jade, telling her story the way that feels most authentic to her, and any political element these characteristics may bring is purely coincidental. HEART explores the dissolving of a marriage, the grief losing a relationship can cause, and the new possibilities we can find ourselves opened to under the right set of circumstances.
Savage’s contributions are invaluable, helping to create immediate shifts in tone and highlighting the easy, flowing rhythms of Anouka’s poetry. When she adds her beatboxing into the mix, it's hard not to glance away from the playwright to admire just how skilfully she uses her instrument and how well it compliments her electronic compositions. Without giving away the powerful storyline tone throughout the hour, Savage also makes a brief foray into acting by delivering a small handful of essential, heart-wrenching lines of dialogue at a pivotal part of their love story.
The mood is similarly shifted by Richard Owens’ lighting design, with the lights lilting gently into warmer tones to imitate the emotions of the work. Given the limited options for lighting choices in the smaller studio space, and the fact that the set-up requires the leading lady to be clearly visible at all times, these simple touches are surprisingly effective and feel natural to the action on stage. Along with stage manager Ruby Sevink-Johnston, Owens is part of an offstage pair whose work is less outwardly noticeable, but who are no less essential to the proceedings and contribute strong work within the limits of the space.
As playwright, performer, and to some degree director (as none is credited for the production), Jade Anouka is a force of nature. Toeing the line between an authentic, relatable human being and a larger than life, extraordinary figure, she brings her work alive with subtle movements and alterations of tone. When called to present conversations with her parents, she slouches either forward (mum) or backward (dad) and adjusts her tone and accent accordingly, so transported is she in moments of movement or travel that you can almost imagine a grand set around her, and when she moves to stride out of the space before returning to finish her story we sit on the edge of our seats in hope that she isn't done. As an actor, she is triumphant, powerful, defeated and reborn, all without having to make a grand, overwrought gesture or change to her persona.
Meanwhile her writing left me with one thought: “I should buy her poetry collection!” She teeters between lyrical and brusque, melodic and to the point, delivering emotive and decorative phrases about her feelings one moment and launching into a diatribe on the injustices of her life the next. Crucially, this all feels fully authentic both the version of herself she is portrayal, and the real, complex person who is delivering these lines. Veering so close to musical performance that she does momentarily begin to sing, her poetry is so striking and richly felt, I would have been more than content to sit in a silent room while she, unmoving, delivered her words and shared her feelings with an attentive crowd.
The product of creatives at the pinnacle of their crafts, and of a life lived, experienced, and fully examine, HEART is the kind of bold and daring debut that births performers of their generations. Easy to push as a descendant of other one-woman shows, amore poetry-driven Fleabag or a more grown-up Chewing Gum Dreams, Anouka proves herself not to be the next Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Michaela Coel, but to be a unique voice and a talent who cannot be so simply defined. Bold, insightful, and unafraid to be afraid, Jade Anouka and HEART are the real deal.
HEART plays at Brixton House until February 3rd
For tickets and information visit https://brixtonhouse.co.uk/shows/heart/
Photos by Henri T