The Week on Stage: From Sound of the Underground to Alex Edelman’s Just For Us

Clockwise from top left: ‘On the Ropes’, ‘Acosta Danza: Spectrum’, ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Alex Edelman: Just For Us’  (Steve Gregson/Polina Koroleva/Helen Murray/Alastair Muir)
Clockwise from top left: ‘On the Ropes’, ‘Acosta Danza: Spectrum’, ‘Sound of the Underground’, ‘Alex Edelman: Just For Us’ (Steve Gregson/Polina Koroleva/Helen Murray/Alastair Muir)

This week, Travis Alabanza’s “punk as hell” new play opens at the Royal Court, stand-up Alex Edelman tells a gripping story at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a new musical at the Park Theatre tells an untold story, and Carlos Acosta’s dance company showcase their skills.

Sound of the Underground – Royal Court ★★★★★

What happens when an underground artform becomes mainstream? In Travis Alabanza’s Sound of the Underground (yes, the Girls Aloud song makes multiple appearances), the widely recognised idea of drag, popularised by RuPaul’s Drag Race, is dismantled. Is this a play, or cabaret, or a musical, or performance art? Whatever it is, it’s punk as hell: proudly queer, anti-capitalist and prepared to be divisive.

As the show begins, we’re introduced in rollcall fashion to a cast of poised and brilliantly named performers: Chiyo, LillySnatchDragon, Ms Sharon Le Grand, Rhys’ Pieces, Sue Gives A F***, Midgitte Bardot and Wet Mess. They sarcastically warn that the following show will leave us lying awake at night, thinking about how “urgent, timely and radical” the whole thing was. They make brutally honest admissions, too. Sound of the Underground might be giving drag queen Sue “four weeks off from entertaining drunk women at hen dos”, but the cast are each being paid £600 per eight-show week, meaning they’ve all taken pay cuts to be there.

The rest of the show unfolds in a series of lengthy sketches, each a miniature work of art in itself. A dull grey kitchen appears, the cast squeezed into monotonous workwear for a pastiche domestic drama that’s lightly gripping, if a little confusing. But then – a (literal) rug pull! Rosie Elnile and Max John’s set is dismantled piece by piece, revealing the backstage of a club against the theatre’s bare bricks. Out plays a lengthy lip sync, in which the performers speak in depth about the changing drag industry. There are no easy answers, with complex, opposing opinions put forward on commercialised Pride marches and drag mega tours, queens doing Amazon sponcon.

The cast of ‘Sound of the Underground’ (Helen Murray)
The cast of ‘Sound of the Underground’ (Helen Murray)

The second act opens on a stage decked in petal pink satin, as Sue, dressed like a drag Marie Antoinette, talks us through queer history interlaced with obligatory X-rated jokes. She compéres a cabaret of singing, dancing and bare bums, in which highlights include a rousing Cheeky Girls performance by Ms Sharon and a number by Wet Mess that has taken several attempts to describe in words before I realised I simply couldn’t.

After all that giddy, joyful entertainment, there’s a moment that makes us sit up with a jolt. We watch a sexually charged performance from drag king Chiyo, when the music suddenly cuts out and he writhes and grinds in silence. It’s a moving reminder of the importance of supporting and defending LGBTQ+ people in the real world and not just when they’re entertaining us.

This show, daring in its originality, unapologetic in its message, leaves us with our heads spinning. The cast make an early joke about how it’s all “hauntingly timely” and “scarily urgent” – but at a time when the Tory government is willing to trigger a constitutional crisis by vetoing the Gender Recognition Bill in Scotland, it’s important we hear stories like these. When the people in power fail, the Sound of the Underground does the talking. Isobel Lewis

On the Ropes – Park Theatre ★★★☆☆

It’s easy to see why a life like Vernon Vanriel’s has been given the stage treatment. A lightweight boxer of the Seventies and Eighties, Vanriel rose from humble beginnings in north London to becoming the UK’s No 2 boxer. Yet, after a swift change in fortune, he lost his career, began a battle with crack cocaine addiction, and became stranded in his birth country, Jamaica, after an extended holiday. The government’s Windrush scandal meant that despite having indefinite leave to remain in the UK, Vanriel and tens of thousands of others were left without rights and unable to re-enter the country after leaving.

On the Ropes uses 12 “rounds” to tell the triumphs and tragedies of Vanriel’s extraordinary life, interspersed with a variety of reggae hits. Mensah Bediako gives a committed performance as the boxer, arrogant at one moment, agonised the next. As the narrators of the piece, Ashley D Gale and Amber James slot easily into a variety of roles in Vanriel’s world – sisters, scheming managers, airport staff – and keep the action moving forward.

The cast of ‘On The Ropes' (Steve Gregson)
The cast of ‘On The Ropes' (Steve Gregson)

Given his story is so important – and has been under-told for so long – Vanriel and his co-writer Dougie Blaxland have clearly sought to squeeze in as much information as they could. But the excessive attention to detail ends up robbing the play of much-needed pace. Where a succinct reference to the long, cyclical conversations at the Jamaican visa department would have sufficed, we are instead subjected to minutes of meandering dialogue. Perhaps the frustration is the point – but for the audience’s sake, On the Ropes would pack more of a punch if it was more sparing with the specifics. Nicole Vassell

Alex Edelman: Just For Us – Menier Chocolate Factory ★★★★☆

Just For Us is the story of how a young Jewish man from Boston ended up at a white nationalist gathering in New York City. That unlikely meet-up is the heart of Alex Edelman’s 90-minute comedy show, which arrives at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory following an extremely successful US run that earned praise from Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin. In fact, the show has origins in the UK. It was Edelman’s appearance on an English radio show that first pricked up the ears of anti-Semitic trolls on social media. He added them to a Twitter list – “let them be on a list for once” – and cheekily named it the Jewish National Fund Contributors. When one listee posted about an in-person meeting, Edelman – a man who divulges early on that “sometimes people know I’m Jewish because of my name, or my face, or anything about my personality” – decides to tag along. What could go wrong? And that, there, is the story of how a young Jewish man ended up part of a white nationalist circle at an apartment in Queens. I won’t spoil it by saying much on what happens next. Only that it’s not what you expect.

Alex Edelman earned praise from Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin for ‘Just For Us’ (Alastair Muir)
Alex Edelman earned praise from Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Martin for ‘Just For Us’ (Alastair Muir)

Along the way, the comedian folds in other stories, too: of his Olympian brother, of Jared Kushner at the synagogue, of the first and only time his family celebrated Christmas, of his Orthodox upbringing, of his childhood dream to be white. (Edelman is white but not “Wasp white” which, he jokes, is the apex of whiteness.) His stories all circle back to that strange, creepy meeting in Queens, where he unexpectedly hits it off with a pretty girl named Chelsea. In one aside, Edelman acknowledges the rom-com potential in their star-crossed situation. He quickly concedes, however, that his being a pushover means it’s less likely that he would open Chelsea’s eyes to her racist beliefs, and more likely that he would end up joining Chelsea and the antisemites to egg his family home while waving to his mum from the front yard.

Just For Us is a punchily delivered, well-crafted, and very, very funny set about Jewish identity, whiteness, and the limits of empathy. And it really is a hell of a story. Annabel Nugent

Acosta Danza: Spectrum – Royal Opera House ★★★☆☆

When ballet star Carlos Acosta founded Acosta Danza in 2015, he wanted to show off the richness of Cuban dance talent. And Spectrum certainly does that. His dancers have both classical and contemporary training, throwing themselves into a range of styles. Across a varied programme, they show assertive performance and lush physicality.

In Performance, choreographer Micaela Taylor piles up contrasts. The recorded score goes from Andy Stott’s electronic dance music to a snatch of Debussy. A voiceover describes walking as a performance, while the seven dancers switch from one mode to the next. Throughout, the dancers are very in the moment, bright and confident.

The company of Acosta Danza’s ‘Spectrum' (Polina Koroleva)
The company of Acosta Danza’s ‘Spectrum' (Polina Koroleva)

Created in 2009, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun is a sumptuous reimagining of L’Après-midi d’un faune, moved from Greek antiquity to a glowing woodland. Alejandro Silva’s undulates up off the ground, all liquid moves, to Debussy’s score. When Zeleidy Crespo makes her entrance, the music shifts to Nitin Sawhney’s electronic lines. The new Portal, by Juanjo Arqués, is less focused. It’s an episodic piece, losing momentum as the dancers leap from one grouping to the next.

Goyo Montero’s Aldredro no hay nada has a cabaret theatricality, with bowler hats for the dancers and the choreographer’s own stark lighting design. We glimpse couples dancing together, women’s bare arms around their partners’ suited backs. I wish subtitles or translations had been provided for the poems by Joaquin Sabina, spoken on the soundtrack: an English-speaking audience is likely to miss layers of meaning, though the dancers remain alert and punchy. Zoe Anderson

Full review here