Queen of Chapeltown
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
13 – 15 September 2017
A wonderful play, telling the story of how the Chapeltown Carnival came about, and of the first Carnival Queen. At an hour long with no interval, it was the perfect way to portray this informative, important, local piece of history. Throughout, there was lots of comedy; some aimed at the locals (derogatory, yet fond, comments about Chapeltown and comparing it with Roundhay) and some bittersweet quips (“I didn’t know I was Black until I came here”), all performed with faultless comedic timing.
The ‘less is more’ approach of this piece of theatre was arguably its best asset (as Walt Whitman says: “simplicity is the glory of expression”). A sparse set, the use of the whole stage, the radio snippets, the dance and the perfect balance of simple dialogue and periods of silence, made for a thoroughly engaging performance. The actors worked well together and dance was used to evoke the situation and time. This was done beautifully by all the actors, especially the hairdressers’ Mexican wave in one of the scenes, and in the club where actress Elexi Walker used body language to show her character being initially cold and uncertain to the new dancing but thawing and enjoying herself – no speech was used.
One of the main themes was the racism of the time period and this was portrayed very effectively through radio announcements (a ploy which gave immediacy and credibility to the racist words) and the use of music (such as Nina Simone), as well as the titular character Beverly’s thwarted attempt at scoring a job as a hairdresser. Contrasted to this deep-rooted racism, was the unison of the mothers of black character Beverly and white character Hilary’s quotes that “if you aren’t allowed to cut the hair you should wash it.”
Scenes flowed seamlessly and subtle techniques were used, for example varying the numbers of actors on stage, dialogue and silence, music. One of the most poignant scenes was where character Beverly is shown crying to a Nina Simone record; a counterpoint to the raucous dancing of the previous club scene.
First-night nerves showed at times; a certain lack of finesse in the actors’ performance and some of the dialogue was hard to hear, drowned at times by the audience’s laughter when the actors hadn’t paused to wait. The end scene depicts character Beverly as the Queen of Chapeltown. The bright colours of her clothes were in stark contrast to the muted colours of Beverly’s previous outfit (such as the white coat and even her pastel blue party dress), and it was remarked upon by character Hilary realising that previously she lived in black and white and the Carnival was the first time that she saw colour. The audience was left with one thought: “Being a Carnival Queen is about honouring your ancestors”.
Reviewer : Georgie Blanshard