American Trade, Hampstead Theatre, London
Friday 10 June 2011
Gay, black and from a troubled background in Miami, Tarell Alvin McCraney announced himself on these shores in 2007, with The Brothers Size at the Young Vic. Effortlessly straddling contemporary life in Louisana and immemorial myth, the play was a mesmerisingly ritualistic three-hander about an intense sibling relationship. Now we have American Trade, which is largely set in London and which has a large cast of 18 performers. Well, that's what comes from spending so much time here – specifically as the writer in residence of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
McCraney has likened the piece to Restoration comedy but watching Jamie Lloyd's wonderfully frenetic, day-glo production, with a crack cast whizzing around on wheeled chairs, I'd say a better comparison would be with Ben Jonson and Jacobean city satire. McCraney's hilarious modern London, however, is the work of a sharp-eyed outsider who has turned the sordid truth into a sunny, scabrous cartoon that yammers with chutzpah and cheeky resilience.
Pharus (portrayed with a naturally winning charm by Tunji Kasim) is a gay, mixed-race hustler who gets on the wrong side of a rapper in New York and relocates to London, having been offered a job creating a modelling department in a PR agency run by his white great aunt. Sheila Reid is blissfully funny as this high-powered harridan, who brags about her success (Idi Amin would have had a much worse press if not for her) and is at loggerheads with her lesbian daughter. One of her charges, a black northern actress who plays "a pouf's magic imaginary friend" on children's TV – seems to be on a self-destructive spree of honesty with the press.
In a teeming play, where there is a real point to a grating pun on "black male" and "blackmail", Pharus tries to turn the agency into a front for a male prostitution racket. The "models" he collects are a potty parody of a rainbow nation, with Dharmesh Patel outstanding as a delectably subversive Pakistani with a dodgy passport and a hold on Pharus after he takes possession of his incriminating mobile phone.
There is too little variation of pace and too little sense that these shenanigans could be a metaphor, but McCraney's gift for skidding verbal registers has the artistry of skateboarders executing phenomenal arabesques.
To 18 June (020 7722 9301)
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