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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
byBen Clover

There's every kind of black you could possibly imagine. Street-black, tuff-black, black-black, blue-black, cool-black, short-black, crazy-black and nigga-black!

Deobia Oparei as Femi
(Image EPO)
It's December and across the land theatres are making back some of their budgets from Pantomime; camp, uncontroversial and time-honoured fun. Across town in the young, hip and "dangerous to know" Royal Court Theatre, we have something a little different.

Crazyblackmuthaf***in'self is about a young, black man trying to maintain a sense of self amidst the struggle of his varied ethnic and sexual identities. A struggle exacerbated by his conflicts with his mother, his brother and his lover in turn. From this kind of build up you won't be expecting much more than I did, "worthy but dull" we think to ourselves. Well we were both wrong. It was tremendous fun, like a panto, but cleverer than a panto. Seemingly camp, like a panto but actually transcending panto. Entirely controversial in the Royal Court way but actually transcending that as well and forcing you to admit that it was actually no more controversial than, well, a panto. Confused? Don't be, the show is as triumphantly enjoyable as Benny Hill coming back from the grave and scoring a winning goal for England at the World Cup.

The hero, Femi, is the aforesaid young, black, gay man and the play follows his travails and his personas across the London where he is at once a Shakespearean actor, a rent boy and dutiful son to a Nigerian woman unaware of his sexual preferences. The tensions of this set up are played out as frenetic farce and the cast keep the pace beautifully as Femi's precarious identities slowly back him into a corner, then through the door in the corner into the bathroom. But in the end love opens this door and Femi's story, and all the sub-stories, end happily. There's even music at the end which the audience claps along to.

Crazyblackmuthaf***in'self is so uplifting that if it wasn't for all the gay sex, it'd be a family show, one you'd recommend to everyone. It's also clever enough to make you question why you don't, why some simulated sex acts on stage seem more shocking than others, and why some jokes raise laughs with one demographic and others with the other. The play was graphic in parts and one scene actually raised howls of pure disbelief from parts of the audience. That the scene was part of a forgettable sub plot was a shame because this piece takes no prisoners (the "***" in the title must surely be its only compromise). That it won back the howlers with sheer verve and theatricality is a testament to the comic firepower and big-hearted sentiment on display here.

The piece has changes of gear and thought provoking riffs on everything you'd expect and these are as movingly done as the rest was comically. In such an able cast it seems unfair to single anyone out for particular praise but Sophie Dix was sublime as an actress with a harrowing African childhood, reminding you that routine inter-racial murder was not long ago and not so very far away either. The cast also does well to even be noticed next to the sheer presence and skill of star/writer DeObia Oparei, whose character's split personalities keep stealing scenes from each other.

So, what is camp? Close to "Theatrical"? At this time of the year more than ever. Someone once attempted to define it as "the absurdly tragic or the tragically absurd". You'd think this play with its farce pace, rent boys and larger than life characters would be camp-tastic, camper-than-a-boy-scout's-camping trip-camp but no. There is a scene where Femi and a scouse transvestitie enact an erotic Little Red Riding Hood for a be-stockinged High Court judge called Cyril. Obvious camp surely? It isn't because here is where the pair fall in love and snatch a moment of genuine emotion while dressed in the costumes of an old man's fantasy. It manages not to be because the characters are believable when they are themselves and not acting a part for someone else. The deftness of the performances ensures neither the dashes of tragedy nor the dollops of absurdity stick to this play.

Against all the odds Crazyblackmuthaf***in'self dodges the camp bullet and we can only take our hats off to star and writer DeObia Oparei and his multi-talented cast. If nothing else Little Red Riding Hood will never be quite the same again.

Written by DeObia Oparei
Directed by Josie Rourke

With: Nathalie Armin, Sophie Dix, Philip Grout, Paul Hickey, DeObia Oparei, Paul Ready, Nitzan Sharron, Jo Stone-Fewings, Clive Wedderburn
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Composer: Siemy Di
Designed by Rae Smith
Lighting Design: Chris Davey
Running time: Two hours twenty minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 21st December 2002
Reviewed by Ben Clover based on 4th December 2002 performance at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs Royal Court Sloane Square London SW1 (Tube Stations: Sloane Square)
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