Stuart King

Review: PASSING STRANGE at Young Vic

With four on stage musicians and a further seven performers, Broadway’s winner of the Tony for Best Book of a Musical in 2008 has finally made the leap across the pond, settling into the Young Vic’s space for the summer. In so doing, it demonstrates why it proved such a surprise hit in New York, running for six months during its initial outing despite (or perhaps in spite of) its less than conventional format.

Passing Strange - Young VicThe cast of Passing Strange at The Young Vic Theatre.

A group of on-stage musicians and performers await their ‘star’, barely disguising the general sense of irritation at his tardiness. When he finally appears we’re launched into his Baptist upbringing and the general constrictions imposed by his LA church’s posse and perhaps most notably, the gentle influence of his god-fearing mother who plays such a significant role in forming the opinions and values of his naive youthful self.

Before long, the burgeoning creative and artistic instincts of our protagonist, drive him to resist and oppose the constraints of the black America construct and he hankers for the more receptive aesthetic he believes exists in Europe. There follows a sojourn in Amsterdam learning about the family which chooses you, and later Berlin, where Bauhaus is replaced mit Nauhaus und a veritable multitude of pseud in-jokes which would undoubtedly have appealed to the piece’s original NYC audiences and will hopefully also resonate with those of a more receptive instinct in London.

Stew Stewart (known in the biz as Stew) collaborated with Heidi Rodewald to create the piece which is directed by South African Liesl Tommy who (perhaps due to her Apartheid-era upbringing in South Africa) has made a point of championing work which shows creatives pursuing cultural freedom. The cast is led by Giles Terera as the narrator, supported by Keenan Munn-Francis as the youthful protagonist, Renée Lamb, Rachel Adadeji, David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson and Caleb Roberts.

Whilst the performance art, meets concert gig, meets theatre piece, format, may feel a little incongruous to some, it works effectively in telling the tale of one headstrong young man’s journey and no-one could doubt the commitment, effort and skills of those charged with bringing that story to life.