Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and taking home two Tony Awards, Michael R Jackson’s beguiling meta-musical, A Strange Loop, comes to London and the Barbican Theatre for a limited engagement, directed by Stephen Brackett.
Those familiar with Jonathan Larson’s Tick Tick Boom, given more prominence with the recent movie release, will be familiar with the idea of a musical theatre writer working a day job, while trying to write the next big hit, which ends up being the story of that very musical.
In A Strange Loop it’s Usher, who shares his name with his job title, working at The Lion King on Broadway, who is the focus of the story. A black, queer, fat man, writing a musical about a black, queer, fat man who is writing a musical about…you get the idea.
The musical Usher is writing might be the one we’re watching, but we can never really be sure of anything in this cleverly complex piece of drama. What we can be sure of, because Usher tells us up front, is that this musical has ‘Black shit! White shit! And Butt Fucking!’ And it does indeed have all three.
Usher’s sex life is just part of the story, but it’s influenced by, and influences, all other aspects of his life. His deeply religious parents do not approve of his ‘homosexualities’, his father worries that Usher may be attracted to him, and his mother instils such a fear of AIDS into Usher that it stalls romantic endeavours.
But the cries of ‘too fat’, ‘too feminine’, and ‘dick too small’ from the dating apps also seep into Usher’s consciousness, leaving him lonely and feeling without purpose. Usher is always alone, accompanied by his six thoughts, who, as well as voicing actual thoughts, personify some of the characters for the benefit of the audience.
Sharlene Hector, Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Yeukayi Ushe, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, Danny Bailey and Eddie Elliott appear in multiple guises as the thoughts, and enjoy taking on, and sharing, different characters.
Usher’s existence, and mental state, is actually pretty harrowing, there are points where you could genuinely weep for the character, because the story is so brutally honest. Yet, A Strange Loop is also incredibly uplifting and joyful, with glimmers of hope ever present. It plays with our emotions, but in such a way that means no one minds a bit.
The score very much drives the narrative, but the songs are eminently enjoyable to listen to; a kind of Stephen Sondheim, mixed with Jonathan Larson, blended with Lin Manuel Miranda – it sounds like musical theatre heaven. The opening number demonstrates the discombobulating effect of Usher’s inner thoughts, relentlessly tearing him down with little attempt to build him back up.
As A Strange Loop progresses Jackson’s score continues to take us inside the mind of Usher, revealing insecurities on sexuality and race, and a fight to not become marginalised as a result. Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple set amplifies Usher’s lonely existence, opening up to reveal more complexity in the later scenes.
This is a new musical that’s practically perfect, and made even more so by a breathtaking central performance from Kyle Ramar Freeman, who reprises the role from Broadway. Freeman’s tender, soulful, and ultimately powerful portrayal of Usher is the must-see performance of this year.
A Strange Loop is a heartfelt and authentic piece of writing about a life where discontentment and self-loathing can perhaps be overcome by refusing to make compromises to an unforgiving world.