Soweto Kinch, Ricardo Da Silva and Tyrone Isaac–Stuart. Pictures: Graeme Braidwood
The Legend of Mike Smith
Coventry Belgrade, B2
At first I didn’t relish the look of this show. Ricardo Da Silva, who plays the ‘original’ Mike, although both an actor, house dancer and choreographer, seemed to be devoid of vital movement, more or less slouching around the stage and not being particularly interesting.
But I was missing the point. As things start out, Mike is just an ordinary lad, a bit feckless, in a sense a nobody, awkward, gangly, with nowhere to go but his imagination.
It is important that he does not seem dance-oriented or balletic, for this shy but well-meaning miladdo will only discover real ability in himself – he aspires to get signed by a big record label - towards the end, when his versatility, athleticism and poise suddenly blossom and astound.
Mike is shadowed, or mirrored, by two ‘larger’ Mikes, all wearing the same costume (a check shirt, green fatigue trousers); Soweto Kinch - Oxford graduate, Music College alumnus, multi-award-winning composer, jazz alto saxophonist (his pre-teen enthusiasm was encouraged by his seeking out Wynton Marsalis) plus actor (sprung from a theatrical family), hip-hop star and rapper – is there no end to this performer’s talents? And Street Dance and Hip-hop specialist, plus inspirational pre-school dance/movement teacher/instructor) Tyrone Isaac-Stuart.
Two large, slightly corny Darth Vader-or Lord of the Rings-like figures which appear together on the (rather good) upper screen projections give a clue to the idea of the play, which evolved out of Soweto’s celebrated 2013 CD album and took four years, apparently, to germinate.
Kinch, who devised The Legend of Mike Smith, including the music, presents it with his company, Uprize. ‘Uprize’, we are told, ‘celebrates new art and creativity, challenging dominant cultural narratives and bringing underground voices to the fore. We are committed to reframing Black British identity, deconstructing stereotypes and affirming traditions - building on the successes of our flagship projects The Flyover Show and The Legend of Mike Smith. In so doing, we will be developing new audiences, developing cultural capital outside of the mainstream and providing credible artistic alternatives.’
It sounds like an admirable plan. The present show, Kinch explains, ‘is an exploration of the Seven Deadly Sins, placed in a modern context.’ It deals with all the various temptations, such as commercialism and consumption, greed and envy and sex, which confront the young growing up today. ‘I had to look at what is attractive about sin in our contemporary culture. There’s something inherently seductive about each of the sins; ‘Greed is good’ or ‘Sex sells’, that young Mike Smith – an ultra-ordinary name – encounters. ‘I guess the normal barriers that an inexperienced young person, especially a young black artist, might face.’ Research for the writing led him back to several classics, notably Dante’s Inferno and Goethe’s Faust.
Once the second ‘Mike’, Tyrone Isaac-Stuart, showed up, imitating young Smith’s movements, the show enlivened, indeed gained a comic dimension. Both had mouthpieces, but for most of the show’s dialogue were not, it seemed, miked. Back-projections added something, yet it was only when Soweto Kinch appeared that the dance and movement potential became clearer. Indeed, his rubbery first sequence was beautifully ingenious, and utterly mesmerising.
And almost from that moment on, it was the expressiveness of the movements that took over. Not because one could work out what they indicated, if anything: they were pure joy as a visual feast.
Soweto Kinch blowing a mean alto sax
However if the story itself was not evident from the winningly brisk action, it must have lain in the words. And therein lay the problem.
The direction, by hip-hop and street dance wonder Jonzi D, another major talent who in 2011 was offered but turned down an MBE for services to British dance, seemed fine-tuned and vigorous. Indeed some of the triple interplay was incredibly cleverly and wittily choreographed. The show, billed as Music Theatre, as well as (possibly) ‘ground- breaking’, not unnaturally relies heavily on the music – otherwise it wouldn’t be a rap-cum-hip-hop feast.
Two musicians were involved virtually throughout – a plucked bass (Nick Jurd) and a set of very vocal drums (Kinch has worked with a multitude of drummers and percussionist). In fact there were four musicians, as the two ‘shadow’ Mike’s both played (I think) alto saxophone, evocatively and generally quite brilliantly. When the two finally came onstage together from both sides – another mirror effect – it was a strangely moving moment. In fact the whole ensemble was, rhythmically speaking, deliciously talented, full of fizz and energy and charisma.
Maybe rap is meant to be half inaudible, if not virtually shouted, aggressively expressed. It’s all part of the rebellion against norms, against smug society, and against authority. It sounds impressive enough driving down the street. But the effect in a play is disastrous. The script, which must be so crucial, got wholly squashed and obliterated. At times – for instance, the ad-libbing when the cast invaded the audience (almost a sine qua non nowadays), one heard everything (it was enjoyably funny: ‘Miss tight jeans’; ‘Why did you bring her? You know she’s underage’; ‘I know he’s overheating, he’s wearing a trenchcoat ‘).
There were indeed moments of blessed calms and relaxation. But the bulk of the show, or its import in any detail, was an enigma. Kinch has talked with great articulacy about the inspiration of religion, about his music, about his aspirations for the show. ‘Religion, or rather faith has been a massive part of inspiring me in my music and getting my chops together…There’s a lot of word play and stuff, which I think listeners that are engrossed in the hip hop scene and battle culture and innuendo will get.
‘The thing that’s most exciting for me is that the show is not easily definable as a hip-hop theatre piece, or a Jazz concert with some scenes attached.
'People are finding it hard to classify, but are just excited by the work, which for me is gratifying, because I believe it will turn on its head people’s assumptions about urban culture, about hip hop and jazz and about what the power of theatre can be. The soundbite version is “Come and see my show. It will revolutionise your life!'
Well yes, maybe. The activity onstage certainly enhanced mine. But the words did nothing, because they were not allowed to. Somebody should have reined in the hyperactive drummer, with his endless, predictable repeating ostinati, and the sax sections, while pretty adept, are purely a distraction when the words feed in. You can’t have rap or hip-hop (though you can have jazz) without words. Otherwise, what is the true content and message of the show? One could work out some of it; but most of it – about 75 per cent - not.
Part of the problem also rests with those in the control room at the back. If they were all incomers, they need to learn a thing or two about the difference in venues. If there were Belgrade technicians, they need a rap (NB pun) on the knuckles. Used perhaps to the more spacious main house, they all too often seem to come into the B2 studio and let things rip (a near pun). The sound control has spoilt, or intruded upon, perhaps half a dozen Belgrade shows of late; and perhaps out of duty, they hammered it home in this staging. If they think the audience enjoys it, they’re probably only right half of the time. Here, any poignancy in the words, and I guess there was quite a bit, ignominiously perished.
So I find it hard to concur with any of the quotations they give on their flyer leaflet. ‘A spectacular piece of theatre, constantly engaging, drawing together ancient ideas of sin and their modern counterparts’ – London Jazz News, quoting, I suspect, from the original PR material; ‘A real tour-de-force – a contemporary take on the Seven Deadly Sins’ (The Guardian – ditto). ‘A mind blowing experience’. Well – maybe a touch of hyperbole there . . .
But I will try and list some of the moments that did electrify me. Young Mike seeks ‘something fresh, something edgy’, and the show was certainly that. Kinch’s own dancing was simply fabulous: he uses hands, fingers, head, shoulders, elbows, chest, diaphragm, knees, feet, shoes – in fact, virtually every bit that can move, waggling, wriggling, stepping out, striding, teasingly, magnetisingly, beguilingly, to magical effect.
There were many moments when the lighting, which always seemed to generate the right emphasis, was especially clever (the simple idea of projecting a straight line across frontstage to evoke the yellow line was one instance, on a tube platform (a rather good scene, where Tyrone engaged in a striking rap, and Da Silva lay down in a police scene of crime body outline) - while Isaac-Stuart’s next scene was equally impressive. Another lighting coup was the perfect illumining of one quite sensational block by Jonzi D near the end.
The shopping bags that surrounded- almost threatened - Soweto were presumably suggesting greed, acquisition and consumerism, whether than be gluttony or avarice. So active were the performers, it’s difficult to imagine anyone could accuse them of sloth.
There’s a hilarious bit – very skilfully specified and directed – where the three are in line behind each other. The faces they pull are a picture; the same applies to a sequence when the characters are back to back, constantly turning and wheeling around. The backdrop takes over with a projected image of a roulette wheel – yielding another good scene and some fun with the numbers. An ensuing scene was limp starting – one of the few moments when one could fault the coordination. But a recorded bass duet like a Negro spiritual, after Tyrone has made a rather memorably executed exit, was a treat.
Yet even the recorded offstage female voices, heavily miked, fell victim (occasionally) to the imperiousness and thunderousness of the onstage or backing noise. I think one specific criticism I might make by way of feedback or suggestion is that the female personage, or personages, might have been made a live character. It would surely have added contrast to the show. Presumably that would counter or obstruct the basic idea, which is that the three Mike Smiths – i.e. Mike Smith himself - are the sole characters onstage.
The most galvanising moment for me, amid a lot of deadly business with scarlet head stocking masks, was when Riccardo Da Silva finally comes into his own, performing astonishing gymnastic cavortings, mostly on his back. The timing was miraculous, and whether Jonzi D or Da Silva himself was the choreographer, or both, they proved indeed a genius. Here was something to set against Kinch’s phenomenal, muscular movements. It was unalloyed joy and pure delight to watch.
Equally, a shoe fitting sequence took on a tangibly sexual imagery: and later, a ‘ha ha ha ha’ number, a marvellous rhythmic vocal duet, somewhere between rap and Old Time Music Hall, with laughing or cackling sax arpeggios, came off fabulously. It also could almost have been by Handel. Tyrone used a handheld microphone during some of the exchanges, and the result was really an improvement on the rest of the miking.
Rotten to record that the opening of last sequence was weak, partly due to an inept repeating syncopated drumbeat that threw everything onto the third beat (of four) and dictated a pretty duff stage response. But even that one cheered up: not much can prevent this trio from hitting the jackpot. To 29-04-17