Amanda Wilkin  as Chess, front, and Gbemisola Ikumelo as Serena. Picture: Graeme Braidwood 

Hopelessly Devoted

The Door, Birmingham Rep

***

WITHOUT a doubt, anything that attracts a young audience into a theatre is a good thing. Kate Tempest; the acclaimed Rapper, turned poet ,turned playwright, seems to have added as many elements as possible to her new play, Hopelessly Devoted, to entice a whole University campus into the building.

She admits that she is new to theatre and is still learning. She may well in the future deliver something outstandingly different but this still feels like she is indeed finding her way in the space and with her writing. With so many visual and performance experiments all at once you feel at times like a willing lab rat.

Hopelessly Devoted tells the story of a convicted murderess, Chess ( Amanda Wilkin) finding her salvation to broken relationships and her long term incarceration in prison, with cellmate Serena ( Gbemisola Ikumelo ), through the newly found expression of her singing and poetry. This is aided in the form of reformed addict, now music producer, come life coach, Silver (Martina Laird).

Played out in a simple white square on the floor representing the confines of the cells, together with an exposed lighting rig , visible stage manager  and  video projection, Director James Grieve seems to have left too many things out  in the open that distract from the core of this hard hitting tale. It feels like everyone’s just a little trying too hard to be `cool’ with the setting when in fact just the words and performances are more than enough.

It is perhaps one reason why the audience seemed to be divided and left footed in their reactions with some laughing at some very intense moments out of misplaced intent. At one point Chess is verbally threatened violently from an inmate above her room that she will `cut her throat for singing in her cell.’ This seemed to get a big laugh and even a slight round of applause which was curious to say the least.  This continued to happen in several other places and I was aware that others were checking around them to make sure they had not missed something that was making the others laugh.

Even with these cue curiosities though Amanda Wilkins performance as Chess cut through the technical overload and elevated some very basic songs with her intensity and great singing voice.

With Ikumelo & Laird doubling their respective roles as musicians and support vocalists the trio managed to deliver the multiple elements of this comprehensive dark tale in a very minimalist style.

The final curiosity was a `curtain call’ style performance of the closing song with cast members entering into the audience space as if we were to all meant sing along and clap. This was a little out of place for me as the play ends with Chess triumphantly conquering her performance fears and as the action all takes place in the white square representing the confines of the prison, it seemed like one jailbreak too many.

It may in the end seem a little naive that an abused emotional sprit, even one like that of Chess a convicted killer, can be corrected somehow with a release of creativity and a few beats. It’s not altogether a new theme and this is not exactly Sister Act but all the signs are there that with some experience Kate Tempest will build upon her continuing track record and add to her public acclaim. To 05-10-13.

Jeff Grant 

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