Review by Harry Bower
When a show opens with an actor doing a shot from a Mooncup, it forces you to revaluate everything you thought you knew about the production you’ve come to see. That the existence of this scene is in itself a joke (the MC of the cabaret show is the literal MC = menstrual cup) goes some way in explaining just how wacky and silly the humour in Splintered is, the new part-play, part-cabaret show by Emily Aboud now playing on Soho Theatre’s main stage.
There is a critical underrepresentation of queer Caribbean people onstage in the UK, a problem which Aboud and Lagahoo Productions are painfully aware of and trying to fix. Splintered is a 75-minute romp exploring the deep-rooted and cyclical nature of homophobia in the Caribbean and the struggles faced by queer Caribbean people as a result. It is electric.
Aboud has managed to achieve a rare thing: making a lesson in history so entertaining it doesn’t feel like a lesson. With a sometimes painfully self-aware script which highlights hypocrisy and breaks down preconceived ideas, there is virtually zero room for interpretation on the stuff that matters. That the show doesn’t feel unnecessarily preachy or repetitive is credit to the creative, funny, and norm-breaking formats used throughout. A game show for a girl coming out as gay to her mum; a gloriously camp reimagining of the Cell Block Tango from Chicago (“Relatable. Gay. Content”) telling of key moments in the lives of queer women; lip syncing to an interview undertaken in Trinidad and Tobago; a religion-centred scene (one of my highlights) in which a priest turns Dr. Evil’s lyrics into a hymn – there is no shortage of imaginative storytelling mechanics here.
The piece is laced with facts designed to shock the audience and make us think. Good theatre is usually well researched. Splintered is on a different level, with most of the show informed by interviews with queer women about their lived experiences in the Caribbean. That authenticity powers the more surreal satirical moments, serving to give the actors the right to go over the top and make us laugh. The show asks some uncomfortable questions and while the actors insist they’re not trying to make us feel uncomfortable, the effect is achieved nonetheless. Why is it that we all know the lyrics to Sean Paul hit songs but don’t take an interest in the origin stories of carnival, or the history behind the naming of West India Docks in London?
If it sounds as though this review is waxing lyrical about the quality of the writing, it’s about to get a whole lot waxier in here – because the performances are just as strong. A triple-hander, the show is stewarded by Charlotte Dowding, Nicholle Cherrie, and Yolanda Ovide. Each plays multiple characters and have their turn at playing MC. There is an authority in this ensemble which permeates every scene. It feels as though this is three friends having the time of their life. The last time I saw Dowding was at Pleasance in Dumbledore Is So Gay – it’s a delight to see them in their element here providing plentiful laughs, plus some of the more poignant moments (their touching and believable portrayal of a gay woman at school in love with their straight friend). Ovide has a mischievous glint in their eye and an infectious grin which materialised every time they interacted with the audience. Cherrie and Ovide share the stand-out scene in the entire piece, both captivating in an interaction between a mother and daughter, the daughter coming out as bisexual. Shout out to Cherrie’s hilarious (and low key scary) priest character too, I will be remembering that nonsense for a very long time indeed.
Splintered is a celebration with a social conscious. It represents a remarkably underrepresented set of stories in an accessible way which will entertain and challenge audiences. With clever storytelling mechanics the cabaret style show gives power to those watching in allowing them to laugh at pretty horrible stuff and in return its cast earn the right to educate. It asks all the right questions and communicates some tough observations. With expertly crafted movement, some beautifully sensitive intimacy direction, an appropriately glitzy lighting design, and a bashfully enthusiastic sound design, the show is complete.
While it might not be obviously hopeful – the hope is there if you look hard enough – Splintered is packed full of queer joy. While there is a lot of great queer theatre out there at the moment (looking at you No I.D, SAP, and Sugar Coat), no such theatre represents people from the Caribbean. Splintered achieves that but so much more besides. It is 75 minutes which will leave you grinning ear to ear and bopping up and down to its pulsating soundtrack long after the curtain falls. Go and see it – you won’t regret it.
Splintered plays at the Soho Theatre until Saturday 29th April. For more information and tickets visit: https://sohotheatre.com/shows/splintered-2/
Photos by Harry Elletson