Bush Theatre's Chiaroscuro Is a Vibrant Piece of Gig-theatre

This is a story to be lived, not simply watched, says Liz Vercoe

Shiloh Cooke as Beth. Pictures by Johan Persson


Aisha, Beth, Opal and Yomi are four musicians trying to make a record. On the surface they seem to have much in common. They are all musically gifted females. They are similar ages. They each identify as black. They have all suffered. Surely the perfect ingredients for a friendship group.

But they have each reached the recording studio via very different routes in life and this play cleverly challenges any assumptions its audience might make about where they will go from here.  

Anyone who has read Jackie Kay's autobiographical Red Dust Road will see the strands of her life running through these four women's experiences. Being abandoned at birth, being the only black child among white children, being a girl, being a queer girl, of being Scottish while being part Nigerian. And, vitally, of the challenge of wanting a contented life, a loving partner and a child. Easy for the many; so very, very difficult for the few. Especially back in the 1980s.

Kay, best known as the Scottish modern Poet Laureate and a novelist, wrote Chiaroscuro (a multiple play on dark and light) in 1986 and, as the opening play of the Bush's new Artistic Director Lynette Linton's first season, in 1986 it remains set.

You even walk into the theatre to a backing track of the sort of disco hits now played at aqua aerobic classes to women who remember big perms and padded shoulders. Configured in the round, Moi Tran's set intimately brings the audience into a recording studio, with keyboard, drums and guitar.  

Aisha, played by Preeya Kalidas is the driving force of the band...and its peacekeeper and diplomat. She talks of India as "home" and a grandmother urging her to be herself and a mother slaving at piecework in a factory. In her mouth Kay's poetic words for the terror of breaking "the rules" and stepping into an alien landscape, become unforgettable.  

She has introduced single-mother Yomi to the group, played by Gloria Onitiri as a haughty full-blooded Nigerian steeped since childhood in more fundamentalist religious and cultural views.

The remaining two band members are sweet-natured, self-hating Opal, played by the gloriously voiced Anoushka Lucas, and the unexpected love of her life, slave-descended Beth.

The inestimable skills of Shiloh Coke, who plays Beth, all bravado on the and fear in her guts, combine composing music for Kay's poetic lines and songs, musical direction, lashings of humour and bringing Beth to hope-filled life. She's a one-stop talent shop.

With the harmonious talent of these four on stage it's not surprising the play becomes part musical theatre or gig, although to be honest the sound is a bit too muted for a real 80s' rock band experience.

But the secret of it being so gripping is the way Kay delicately unpicks the knot of their relationships from the clues and whispers at the very hearts of their life stories and the fables from their female ancestors. In a perfectly balanced 80 minutes these draw you in so that it's as if you are feeling with the characters not just being told their facts. This is how women love, whoever they love. And however distanced it would seem your life has been from theirs, you can't help but find experiences that compel you to understand.  

Liz Vercoe

Chiaroscuro runs until 5 October. Tickets from the Box Office on 020 8743 5050 or www.bushtheatre.co.uk.

Related links

Related links

Chiaroscuro continues at the Bush Theatre in Uxbridge Road until 5 October, running for 80 minutes

Tickets are available from the Box Office on 020 8743 5050 or online.

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Jackie Kay