Leave to Remain – Lyric Hammersmith

Leave to Remain is an exciting piece of theatre which places movement and dance at the centre of its storytelling. Technically it is a musical, although it’s certainly not the kind of music you would hear on the West End: electronic dance music composed by Kele Okereke (of Bloc Party fame). The plot centres on Obi and Alex, a gay couple living in London. Alex is American and, in order to stay in the UK post-Brexit, he needs a green card. It is in the run-up to this wedding-which-is-not-quite-authentic (but also kind of is) that the pair’s troubled pasts and fractured families threaten to overwhelm them.

There are many innovations in this production. The lighting (designed by Anna Watson) is synced perfectly to the music. It works seamlessly alongside the action, incorporating colours and rhythms to portray the ambience of the environment or the emotions of the characters.

Equally seamless are the set changes, which become a part of the action. For example, in one scene Alex (Billy Cullum) is in a club and imagines seeing Obi (Tyrone Huntley) dancing; this is depicted on stage through the use of sliding panels which are rolled back and forth across the stage, allowing Huntley to ‘magically’ appear and disappear. Most slick of all is the physical theatre (devised by director Robby Graham), which hovers between movement and fully choreographed dance. I have never seen this incorporated quite so comprehensively and cohesively into a production. Shifting relationships between characters are illustrated through dance, often without supporting dialogue. It is exciting to watch and makes Leave to Remain feel like it is at the threshold of something truly original.

The show is a slow burner in terms of revealing character complexity and fostering emotional connection with its audience. This is by no means a flaw: both protagonists are hesitant to communicate openly with one another, so the audience also remain in the dark until histories and perspectives organically emerge. The difficult themes referenced in the show – homelessness, depression, addiction, anxiety, prostitution – are key issues within the modern LGBT community; however, at no point does their inclusion feel gratuitous.

Interestingly, a core tension between the couple surfaces due to the opposing nature of their issues: external homophobia and poverty versus internal mental illness and addiction. The tension between Obi and his family is particularly well portrayed, with brilliant performances from Rakie Ayola (as Obi’s mother) and Cornell S. John (as his father). John is especially captivating; he portrays Kenneth as sombre and fearful, yet also gets the biggest laughs of the night with his well-delivered one-liners. The dinner scene, where both fiancés families come together for the first time, is a highlight for both its tension and humour – a duality that Leave to Remain is forever evoking.

However, whilst the characters and emotions are complex, the lyrics are not. The words are repetitive and clichéd, rarely progressing the narrative and often adding unnecessary length to scenes. Around the midway point, the show loses pace and this is in large part due to the volume of songs, several of which could be dropped altogether or at least cut significantly. The music is enjoyable and the on-stage guitarist (Chrio Blake) does a great job; it’s just the vapid lyrics that disappoint. The best song of the production is Cullum’s solo on addiction, during which he is attached to a bungee strap from the ceiling, which allows for some fantastic play with movement and creates a poignant visual metaphor.

The production quality is outstanding, but there are loose ends that need to be tied before this can become a five-star piece. The confusing and underdeveloped side-plot involving Alex’s friend Damien, who supposedly has a crush on him, detracts from the main narrative, to no real benefit. The same can be said for the deteriorating relationship between Alex’s parents, which is not given time to be moving or meaningful.

Yet these flaws are insignificant in the face of the innovation on display. Leave to Remain has a unique energy and emotional force that will not disappoint. Unless, of course, you are expecting a political satire on Brexit – a topic which is given only a passing mention in the script. That said, the broken communication, opposing perspectives and character tensions are perhaps a fitting tribute to Britain’s biggest drama, which is currently playing out in the Houses of Parliament.

Leave to Remain is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 16th February – more information and tickets here.

PHOTOS: Helen Maybanks

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Claudia Graham

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