Back in March, the Victoria and Albert Museum – home of the theatre and performance galleries which once housed part of their collection in the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden – opened its doors on a Friday evening for a series of theatrically-based events. Some were more successful than others: a “cardboard representation of the West End” turned out to be less the meticulous recreation of some of Theatreland’s most magnificent architecture, more a load of upturned cardboard cubes loosely arranged along walkways that claimed, and failed, to emulate the layout of W1 roads.
One of the definite highlights of that evening, though, was cramming into the museum’s Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre to hear Timothy West and his son, Samuel, read from an original Shakespeare First Folio book. It was a presentation that clearly asserted the theatre and performance galleries’ determination to be an intrinsic part of the V&A – something that many people, myself included, worried may not happen when the Theatre Museum closed.
One thing that the V&A’s Covent Garden venue allowed but which the South Kensington museum has traditionally not is the possibility of regular live theatrical performances. So the fact that this week the same lecture theatre at the V&A is playing host to a production brings pleasure by sheer virtue of the booking alone. The fact that it’s an unmissable piece of theatre helps too.
Talawa Theatre Company is Britain’s leading black-led theatre company, and this year sees it celebrate its 25th anniversary. To mark the occasion, outgoing artistic director Pat Cumper has chosen a piece written a quarter of a century ago that can speak to a new generation of theatre audiences. George C Wolfe’s The Colored Museum is made up of short pieces which treats the vignettes of African-American life, culture and history as a curated collection – hence the museum setting. But like the best museums, the pieces on display are not behind glass or otherwise presented at arm’s length: instead, the exhibits demonstrate that while the past may be a different country, it’s one that’s not all that dissimilar from our own.
Director Don Warrington and designer Jonathan Fensom take the challenges of the space (no wings, very little lighting flexibility) and use it to their advantage, storing various elements of the set onstage in crates until they are needed. There’s certainly some clever use of space at work here – but it’s the cast which truly sells the work. Each plays a range of characters, many of which start as hackneyed archetypes but, thanks to Wolfe’s writing and some superb performances, come alive in front of our eyes.
The short pieces vary from the intensely serious (Ashley Campbell’s soldier with a secret, highlighting the overbearing burden that US wars in Korea and Vietnam placed upon the African American community) to the downright farcical (notably where competing styles of black theatre, from “oppression by the man” to “mama-on-the-couch” to Juilliard-trained, pseudo-classical Medea, compete against each other). There are some fine musical numbers, too, with each member of the cast demonstrating some impressive vocal abilities. This is really proving to be Terry Doe’s year: after being the best thing vocally in both Roar of the Greasepaint, Smell of the Crowd and Parade, he’s in yet another show that can demonstrate what a great singer he is.
A couple of sketches didn’t quite work for me: Doe’s often hilarious drag queen, Miss Roj, lacked enough brash self-confidence at times, and I must admit that the significance of Akira Henry’s monologue about a young girl who gives birth to an egg passed me by completely. But the beauty of a work comprised of short pieces is that it’s not long until a new scene that completely brings you back into the fold. one sketch – with a woman’s two wigs arguing about which she should wear to dump her boyfriend – can’t help but generate belly laughs from the entire audience.
Many shows that have something important to say do so with a heavy-handed tone. In contrast, The Colored Museum has such a light touch that it elicits a surge of welcome recognition throughout the entire audience. Overall, its message is that a cultural heritage is something we can choose to reject if we wish – but if we hold on to it, treasure it and, yes, affectionately mock it, it will make us stronger. On the other hand, if we consider it to be baggage, then it’s our loss.
That’s a message that can resonate with everyone, and I hope that Talawa’s superb production has a longer life and can be seen by more people than the V&A’s beautiful lecture theatre can seat.
Back in March, the Victoria and Albert Museum – home of the theatre and performance gallerie…