The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2019
The new piece from playwright Robin French charts the rise of the Rock Against Racism movement, itself a response to the surge of far-right groups in Britain in the late 1970s. The play focuses on the friendship of Denise, a mixed race girl with an absentee Jamaican father, and Trudi, a white girl whose brother shows National Front tendencies… Together the girls discover the great music being produced in Birmingham and the West Midlands at the time, with politics shaping their experiences and their development.
I have to say it’s a lot more fun than my description might lead you to believe. French’s script sizzles with humour and is laced with nostalgic details that give the play an air of authenticity, and his words are brought to exuberant life by the energetic and excellent cast of three. Lauren Foster’s Denise, an innocent, has a sharp learning curve when it comes to the overt racism of everyday life, be it off-colour jokes or violent assaults, or even Eric Clapton ranting racist remarks at the Birmingham Odeon. She learns how to handle herself, how to stand up for what is right, and develops and matures, shaped rather than held back by her experiences. Trudi, on the other hand, in a tirelessly perky performance by Hannah Millward, is torn between her friendship and loyalty to her brother, Dudley.
The third member of the cast, playing Denise’s dad and activist Andrew is the superb Nathan Queeley-Dennis who has a powerful singing voice that handles a range of styles. All three narrate the action, dropping in and out of supporting roles with ease. Andrew’s account of a RAR march in London is both poetic and evocative, demonstrating the power of French’s wonderful writing. Director Alex Brown keeps the action cracking along at a fair pace, and this is supported by the inclusion of popular songs from the time, with the lyrics altered to fit the story – and so we get the nostalgia factor of a jukebox musical but none of the awkward shoehorning in of the songs for the sake of it. It’s great to hear some classics revisited, from ELO to The Specials and even Sham 69.
There’s a bit of audience involvement in which we are invited to join in with some reggae moves – we’re all a bit sluggish on this miserable Monday evening but we give it a go. I expect that later in the week, there’ll be more of a party atmosphere.
All the way through, I’m spotting parallels with current events: racists in power, idiots blaming immigrants for the country’s economic woes; and so to some extent the play doesn’t need its final scene, where the action leaps forward to the present and we see how far Denise has come, and how much Trudi is entrenched in her old ways and how the country is revisiting aspects of the past it would be better off leaving behind.
Relevant, relatable and right-on, Rebel Music is irresistibly entertaining and elucidating, a celebration of Birmingham’s multi-cultural identity and heritage and a stark reminder of what happens when the nastier elements of society rear their ugly heads.
I loved it.