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Queen of Chapeltown review

A celebration of the origins of the Leeds West Indian Carnival bursts with colour and compassion.

The Leeds West Indian Carnival Committee has joined forces with West Yorkshire Playhouse to present Queen of Chapeltown – a rapid retelling of the origins of the West Indian Carnival and its impact on Sixties Leeds.

Set in a smoggy, grey and drizzly mid-century Leeds, Queen of Chapeltown tells the story of Beverly, Raymond, Arthur and Hilary – four recently-landed West Indians seeking to establish a new life in prosperous Great Britain. Encountering resistance at almost every turn, a newly-forged community sets out to celebrate its proud heritage through calypso, colour and carnival. However, for that to take flight, they need to overcome social barriers and crown a carnival queen…

Elexi Walker as Beverly. Photograph: Anthony Robling.

Colin Grant’s whistle-stop script is a well-researched and evocative piece of storytelling. Drawn from interviews and witness testimony, the language is rich in local lingo and offers a living, breathing authenticity to dialogue. The West Indian community is illustrated with expressively-drawn characters, loaded with unfettered charm, energy and a passionate optimism. Facing the crushing barriers of anti-immigrant sentiment, the characters hone their energies to counter hostility with a united celebration of colour, music and dance.

Elexi Walker stars as Beverly, a defiant and ambitious young woman who discovers life isn’t quite so easy for an immigrant in a post-war Britain. Walker’s performance is cheeky and infectious, bursting with a flirtatious, sassy intensity. She is the perfect partner to Emily Butterfield’s ebullient Hilary, a sweet-natured Yorkshire lass whose warm Northern charm and good intentions personify Swinging Sixties Leeds as a city in a period of cultural evolution. Whilst the story is no doubt speaking about diversity and social cohesion, there is also a bold feminist comment here; it’s Beverly and Hilary who lead on a new relationship which defies a wider, prevailing attitude of resistance to integration.

Raphael Bushay, Benjamin Cawley and Gabriel Cawley play Arthur, Raymond and Tidy Boots respectively. Blessed with some fruitful and witty dialogue, they make for a dynamic comedy trio whilst underscoring humour with passion and pathos. Tidy Boots is an adorably flighty and fab character, whose remonstrations about his own expanding West Indian community serves to expose the true hypocrisy and insecure attitude which underpins racism.

Emily Butterfield as Hilary. Photograph: Anthony Robling.

Amy Leach’s direction is vibrant and colourful, often edging towards a musical style with innovative choreography set to pop-soul hits of the period. Excelling in production design, Queen of Chapeltown also lives and breathes the Sixties, offering a John Hughes campness, saturated in floral fabrics and polka dot patterns. There is a strong sense that the West Indian Carnival was destined to be born in the Sixties and that the city of Leeds was very much ready and waiting for a cultural revolution.

An important and urgent story about the origins of a very proud legacy of celebration, Queen of Chapeltown is an engaging, well-distilled study of the politics and pride behind the creation of the West Indian Carnival. Uplifting, inspiring and full of vitality, this play proudly telegraphs that anything is possible when people come together with kindness, compassion and understanding.

Cast: Raphael Bushay, Emily Butterfield, Benjamin Cawley, Gabriel Paul, Elexi Walker. Director: Amy Leach Writer: Colin Grant Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 65 minutes Dates: Wednesday 13th to Friday 15th September 2017.

 

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