Mar 25 2019 | By More

★★★★☆    Layered

St Cecelia’s Hall: Sat 23 – Mon 25 march 2019
Review by Thom Dibdin

Comic, brutal and certainly confrontational, the UK premiere of James Ijames’ White at St Cecelia’s Hall delivers a well-judged prod at the often unguarded underbelly of white liberal self-satisfaction.

Ijames does not go on an all-out attack, but uses comedy to probe ideas of privilege when colour, gender and sexual orientation overlap. This UK premiere production from the EUTC gets inside what Ijames has to say – although with more time could easily have got several extra layers under the skin.

Anna Phillips and Levi Mattey. Pic Camilla Makhmudi

Gay white artist Gus can’t get his paintings in his friend Jane’s first show as director at a major art institution. The problem is that she wants to reflect diversity in the show and, like most of the artists on the institute’s walls, he is a white dude.

Grabbing hold of his inner diva, Gus responds by employing a black actress of his boyfriend Tanner’s acquaintance to create the persona of an artist, Balkonae to pass his work off as her own and so allow his work to be seen in the show.

So far, so nicely caustic from Ijames’s witty script. It is brilliantly brought to life by director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller with assistant director and designer Camilla Makhmudi, in a particularly fluid staging in the transverse stage of St Cecelia’s Hall.

It all seems quite straightforward at first. An exploration of misguided white male liberals’ fears, showing that when their privilege is challenged, they can be as intolerant as any Trump supporter moaning that their rights as a white man are being denied.

a realistic sense of entitlement

There is also a pretty interesting examination of relationships – cross cultural and otherwise – in Gus and Tanner’s relationship. Showing how we do not see ourselves as others see us, but imagine that others are as we see ourselves – transferring our self-images on to others.

Levi Mattey and Jess Butcher. Pic Camilla Makhmudi

Gus is created with a realistic sense of entitlement by Levi Mattey. He’s a needy individual who is rather too caught up in the rarified art world to notice his own shortcomings. Jess Butcher could be shade more pushy as Jane, but there’s no doubting the arts administrator in her, or her own sense her own importance.

Mattey and Butcher set up a fine framework for the understanding of the art world. But it is a thoroughly brilliant performance from Anna Phillips which makes the whole production.

She inhabits her character with real authority, making both the actress, Vanessa, and Balkonae the construct utterly believable. The way in which Vanessa and Gus workshop their way towards the new character is a delight that is only trumped by the introduce of Balkonae to Jane.

Bradley Butler doesn’t have much to play with as the rather under-written part as the boyfriend. HIs main role is to generate a “wtf are you playing at” attitude, and remind the audience, should they begin to go along with Gus just a little too enthusiastically, of the insanity of his project.

pre-climactic moments

Butler does it well enough, but shows his real potential in a scene where Gus and Tanner are having sex in bed and Gus keeps on interrupting at pre-climactic moments with reflections on their inter-racial relationship. It could be played for comedy or effect, but to the credit of all concerned is used to balance the enormity of Gus’s attitude.

Jess Butcher, Bradley Butler and Levi Mattey. Pic Camilla Makhmudi

Such questions are not the only concern of the play however. Ijames pulls off a hugely effective ending, succeeding in turning everything on its head. He provides no answers, but demands that questions of ownership, creativity and the nature of art are up for debate.

It’s horribly tricky one to pull off, though. And while Brimmer-Beller and his team do so with such satisfaction as to leave their audience stunned into one of those delicious natural silences before the applause breaks out, the denouement could be better created.

Indeed, all the way through White has the appearance of a highly sophisticated beast that needs just a bit more fine tuning to draw out the true potential of what could be a five star show. Maybe a return in August would add the illusive elements.

Running time one hour and 30 minutes (no interval)
St Cecilia’s Hall 50 Niddry Street, EH1 1LG
Saturday 23 – Monday 25 March 2019

Evenings: 7.30pm; Matinee Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.


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