J’Ouvert

Yasmin Joseph
Sonia Friedman Productions / BBC Four and iPlayer
Harold Pinter Theatre

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J’Ouvert Credit: Helen Murray
J’Ouvert Credit: Helen Murray

It may not have officially become a genre, but there are now enough plays celebrating the lives of 20-something black Britons to justify a new strand of drama. For some reason, most of these seem to be written by women and depict experiences that typically involve little money and great trauma but also moments of happiness.

J’Ouvert has recently won the James Tait Black Drama Prize following a debut at Theatre 503 and is now heading for its West End debut at the Harold Pinter Theatre, where this filmed version for the BBC Lights Up season was recorded.

With a resident DJ, it might as easily have taken place in a nightclub and is the kind of show that, but for coronavirus restrictions, would benefit from a promenade performance with theatregoers mingling with the performers. That would help to recreate the heady atmosphere of the Notting Hill Carnival, where the events of this 95-minute celebration take place.

For the most part, the plot follows the fortunes of Nads played by Gabrielle Brooks and Sapphire Joy’s Jade as they enjoy the biggest weekend of their year. These girls know how to party hard, Nads having her eyes on the prize of a trip to Saint Lucia, if her dance moves and outfit can beat all-comers.

However, before getting there, the duo and their upper-class Asian friend Nisha portrayed by Annice Boparai have to overcome a series of obstacles. Whether or not the spirits of strong women at festivals past come into this category could be a matter for debate.

However, there can be less question regarding a couple of thugs who like the look of the young women and press so hard that they need to be beaten off, while a snooty auntie, unwelcoming local residents and a couple of sympathetic old survivors of the Windrush generation all slow down progress too.

What had initially appeared to be strong-willed Nads’s story shifts enough to focus on Nisha for a while before closing with a stirring feminist speech from Jade that will bring the house down when the Harold Pinter reopens in a few weeks to welcome this show as part of Sonia Friedman’s RE:EMERGE season.

J’Ouvert may have a few rough edges but with an enthusiastic, energetic cast, strong messages about feminism and the fact that Black Lives Matter, and a lively production directed by Rebekah Murrell, this TV version is worth catching.

The run at the Harold Pinter Theatre is from 16 June to 3 July.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher