HIP HOP HURRAH ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS
Here’s a hot one, in every sense. Clapped till my hands stuck together at this youthful, truthful, touching and funny tale of acrobatics, acting-up and capital-A Attitude. With Hamilton the city’s hottest ticket it was sharp work by Southwark to host this earlier musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Amanda Green and Tom Kitt for extra lyrics and music). A very room-where-it-happens bit of programming, it has all Miranda’s gift for words and for sudden lyrical slowdowns between rock explosions and rappy rhymes (Glitter/ Twitter/bitter…Pastime/shake-yo-ass time). Not 18c politics this time which drive it, but the featherlight yet anguished world of teenage ambition.
It was inspired – with many tweaks – by a Kirsten Dunst movie, one of those US high-school tales which exert such a powerful fascination on this side of the Atlantic (think School of Rock, Clueless etc: and HEATHERS looming next month in the West End). Teen passions being strong, the genre is a a grand way to explore ambition, betrayal, leadership, failure, friendship, class, race, redemption and – in this case rather beautifully – forgiveness. St Trinian’s, only with better legs and morals.
Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) has beaten her rival in senior year Skylar to captain the school cheerleading squad (“Truman girls, superhuman girls”) with its shiny- haired moppets, hunky jocks and the marginalised, hopeful, chubbier girl Bridget humbly cavorting as mascot in a parrot-suit. Young Campbell runs a tight ship, informing new recruit Eva that it is like joining the Marines, “you sign your life away”.
But to her dismay she gets transferred to the rougher and more diverse Jackson School , up the road, where the cheerleaders were disbanded years earlier . Bridget, an endearing Kristine Kruse with a belting voice and proper scene-stealing funnybones, touchingly assists the prim, preppy middle class Campbell because she has lots of “experience in not fitting in”. But Jackson school, which scorns the ultra-white robotic wholesomeness of cheerleader squads, has a hip-hop crew instead and takes Bridget to its heart. Fabulous they are in their diverse energy: notably glorious Danielle (Chisara Agor) who flips burgers at night and burns with ambition and proud scorn. And among the boys La Cienga (Matthew Brazier) is a long skinny streak of androgyne attitude in a sharp Mohican, minikilt and bare tummy . They make Campbell earn her cred and come down a peg by wearing a humiliating leprechaun suit. Betrayed by her former schoolmates and sore at her loss of cheer-champ ambition, she then talks them into trying for the national contest and attempting the “cheer face” instead of the hip-hop scowl of defiance.
It goes well, then badly, then well again in the classic romcom pattern, though self-discovery and friendship not romance are to the fore. Wonderful soft rock numbers turn up between the vivid hip hop , notably Danielle’s anthem of forgiveness and Haroun Al-Jeddal’s “Enjoy the Trip” as he persuades the unhappy heroine that teenage disasters are not lifelong. But always just when you fear it might get saccharine there always comes a real joke – a look, a line, a number, a Bridget moment or a Lin-Manuel line – which has you laughing and punching the air. It’s a lovely thing. And it’s a youth production by the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible theatre training for under-23s. If BTA keeps on releasing onto the dramatic scene performers this adept, joyful, determined, humorous and (yesterday) amazingly heatproof, salute it.
box office 020 7407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 1 Sept