Have Box Will Travel
Review by Christian McLaughlin
Charlie Dark haven't heard of him? Not to worry, by the end of this show you'll know him better than his biggest fans. Those familiar will know him as a DJ, producer and spoken verse poet, famous for recordings on James Lavelle's Mo Wax record label in the late 90s, for being dropped by Sony at the peak of his career, and for battling back to run the acclaimed Blacktronica night at London's Institute of Contemporary Art.
Thankfully however, this 90-minute one-hander is not a celebrity-DJ tribute. More tears and trials than bitches and bling, Have Box Will Travel is the story of a displaced Ghanaian boy finding his identity through dance, music and downfall.
The sparse stage of the Lyric's studio space is scattered with turntables, music production equipment and one elevated DJ booth. Life begins for young Charlie Williams in his bedroom in Peckham, flexing behind his decks and imagining the roars of the unseen crowds until interrupted by his mother.
The dream of acceptance and adoration is not set firmly in motion until the Brixton Academy, 1989. Meticulously recreating the atmosphere, Dark playfully re-enacts every sight and sound from the legendary Public Enemy gig.
Rapping impressions from Chuck D to Rakim, the child-like persona he adopts, with cap cocked to the side and voice on the squeaky side, convincingly takes the audience back to the impressionable antics of the playground. Not accepted as a real 'B-Boy' (break-dancer) at his Southeast London school; his first house party at 13-years-old is a disaster thanks to his meddling mama and her crazy African cooking; swept off the Dingwalls dance floor by arch-rival 'Sweaty Tony' at his first clubbing experience time and time again little Charlie, by now known as Bird, has his fantasy interrupted.
The final straw comes as a celebratory chorus of "Chucky! Chucky! Chucky!" filters into reality as "Chuck him out! Chuck him out! Chuck him out!" and sulking off toward another club's EXIT sign, Bird, now a beret-wearing jazz-buff, senses his true calling. "This club is not my home, these are not my friends, they don't respect me as a dancer..." he says, turning to look up at the DJ box, "But I will get respect as a man that knows his tunes."
And so the plot chronologically ticks along, taking us through a spell in Ghana where Charlie fails to connect with his father, as Charlie's ambitions and vinyl box grow to eventually become his envisioned persona globe-trotting 'Super DJ Charlie Dark'.
The family-friendly gags, deftly helped along by director Benji Reid's smooth touches of physical comedy, draw lots of laughter, until 'Super DJ', now also known as 'Super Producer', Charlie Dark's new-found fame predictably hits the fan.
Sobbing over broken dreams and the machinations of an overtly commercial music industry, one begins to wonder when the cliché will break away in to some unexpected direction.
Alas, there is no relief and after a heartfelt scene reliving his breakdown, Charlie bounces back bigger and stronger, ready to laugh at the past and take on his responsibilities as a father.
It's undoubtedly endearing, enthusiastic and swimming in a knowledgeable positivity that anyone who has recovered from shattered illusions will know. The ideal target audience would be teenagers in need of warning, but for the rest of us that have already had to put our hearts back together in one form or another however, its intermittent attempts at poignancy slightly miss the mark.
The main problem perhaps, is the quick-fire skit format. The superficial, overtly jovial approach both compromises the pathos and means we never truly get to trudge into the darkest of Dark.
Nevertheless, the savvy beats get pulse and mind racing and the infectious descriptions of yesteryear entertain throughout. They are the events that have defined Charlie's life, but unless you're a youngster in need of guidance, don't expect them to change yours.
Due to an email problem, this review is late going online. Apologies to all concerned!