Miriam Gibson

Review: A STRANGE LOOP, Barbican Theatre

A Strange Loop by Michael R. Jackson arrives at the Barbican this Summer after winning both a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in New York. Meta and messy, it’s the story of a fat, queer Black man wrestling with identity and intrusive thoughts.

Danny Bailey and Kyle Ramar Freeman in A Strange Loop. Credit: Marc Brenner Danny Bailey and Kyle Ramar Freeman in A Strange Loop. Credit: Marc Brenner

…”story” is a loose term, because A Strange Loop is low on plot. It’s tricky to explain what actually happens, because much of the musical takes place within the mind of the central character, Usher. He’s developing a musical based about a fat, queer Black man developing a musical about a fat, queer Black man developing a…you get the picture. The supporting cast are made up of six actors playing Usher’s thoughts, and the various secondary characters Ushercomes into contact with, though it’s not always clear if these interactions are real or in Usher’s head. Baffled? Yep, you will be. A Strange Loop is deliberately disorientating and disturbing. It’s also intentionally slippery for reviewers because it pokes fun at what its audience (specifically straight white audiences, like me) anticipate from it. “You needto make your musical about slavery or police violence, so the allies in the audience have something intersectionalto hold onto,” Usher is advised. A Strange Loop is full of these barbs, with Jackson clearly enjoying the and opportunity to skewer his audience and their perceptions.

Usher is beset by self-doubt and low self-esteem. He struggles at home because his family disapprove of his sexuality, but he struggles in the world of gay dating and hook-ups due to his race and body type. The scenes depicting these issues are tough to watch (this is not a show for families or the faint-hearted, and I can’t overstate the importance of checking the Barbican’s content warnings), but A Strange Loop is far from a humourless polemic. It’s stuffed with jokes about pop culture and the absurdity of theatre. However, Jackson’s script has barely changed from the New York production, so some of the American references don’t land on this side of the Atlantic.

Jackson’s score works onstage but there are few songs you’ll be humming on the way home. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design starts off minimal and becomes more spectacular as A Strange Loop continues- like the story, it’s unpredictable.While it’s positive that a musical like A Strange Loop is selling out the Barbican, the intensity of Jackson’s show gets lost in the larger venue. As for the performances, Kyle Ramar Freeman is fine as Usher, and Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea and Eddie Elliott stand out amongst the supporting cast as Thought 2 and Thought 6.

A Strange Loop is a bold, challenging musical, and what you get out of it will depend hugely on your own experiences of race, sexuality and identity. In developing this sprawling, bewildering show, Jackson has produced one of the most original musicals of the decade.