Friday, April 8, 2016

'Labels' at Theatre Royal Stratford East, 7th April 2016

Labels opens with Enoch Powell's notorious 'rivers of blood' speech, then segues through Idi Amin, Jeremy Clarkson and Donald Trump. We conclude with the infamous 1964 Conservative slogan: "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour". The process neatly traces the skeleton of contemporary bigotry to the current day. The language shifts, the tone changes and the arguments gently morph, but the core remains the same: fear of those who're 'different'.

The show goes on to probe the infinite ways that racism manifests: sometimes blatantly, sometimes subtly. The vehicle for this is the life, family and heritage of writer/narrator Joe Sellman-Leava. He's a personable, eager-to-please sort of guy, hailing from a small village in Devon. Ordinarily that'd be a decent potted biography, yet Joe quickly explains that things aren't so simple for him.

With a white, English Mum and a Dad from India (by way of Uganda) he's frequently assailed by people inquiring where he's 'really' from. "Cheltenham?" he innocently responds, but we all know what they really mean: "You're not white. You don't look suitably English. You're an outsider. What label can I mentally file you away as?"

Joe talks us through various incidents throughout his life: being bullied in primary school by kids doing a comedy Indian accent, hearing people call him 'Paki' behind his back, strangers yelling abuse at him on the street and even getting racially abused by DMs on Tinder. We hear about his family history; his Dad forced to abandon life in Uganda after Amin decreed that Indians were exploiting hardworking Ugandans; his mother having to deal with prejudice for being in an interracial relationship and the various bigotry they've all had to deal with down the year - culminating in the family deciding to change its name from Patel to Sellman-Leava, in the hope of sidestepping discrimination.

Sounds pretty heavy right? Fortunately, Joe keeps things relatively light. In between the sobering accounts of discrimination there's decent wodges of straightforward comedy, gentle audience interaction and a moment where we all make paper planes and throw them at him. Joe's got this enviable easy-going charisma - a little bit vulnerable, a little bit sarcastic, all sincere.

This all makes the moments of naked anger that much more visceral. Towards the closing scenes the light-heartedness is jettisoned as we explore the current, very real consequences of bigotry: gently bobbing corpses in the Mediterranean. Quoting Katie Hopkins ("Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I don't care.") he launches into an impassioned diatribe about the essential stupidity of racism, asking why lives from one patch of dirt are considered worthless and lives from another exalted.

While the woes of a middle-class Devon boy are all well and good, it's here that Labels really shows its teeth. There's a humanist thread in Labels that begins in the gentle domestic anecdotes, runs through the re-enacted portrayals of racism suffered by Joe and reaches a climax with the current refugee crisis.

Okay, so Labels isn't exactly offering a mindblowingly fresh perspective on racism and bigotry, but it's precisely this kind of sincere, friendly, funny yet serious as hell show that exposes the idiocy and inherent misery of discrimination and bigotry. Concise, smart and movingly performed - it's a winner.


Labels is at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30 April. Tickets here.

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