Catwalk, Tricycle Theatre, London

The models wobble on this catwalk
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The Independent Culture

Make no mistake, a catwalk is a slippery slope to hell, says this play about black people who work in the fashion business. But why is this so for some and not others? And are those who do fall down that slope the victims of racism and general heartlessness, or are they silly schemers, getting only a harsher version of what they deserve?

Make no mistake, a catwalk is a slippery slope to hell, says this play about black people who work in the fashion business. But why is this so for some and not others? And are those who do fall down that slope the victims of racism and general heartlessness, or are they silly schemers, getting only a harsher version of what they deserve?

Malika Booker doesn't tell us, and indeed doesn't tell us anything that isn't confusing and contradictory in this muddle of monologues. Commissioned by the black Nitro theatre company, Booker knew and cared nothing about fashion, but, along with the black actors, did "months of research". Not surprisingly, the result conveys nothing of the glamour and frivolity of fashion, or of its rewards; all we see is a world of back stabbing and exploitation, indignation and resentment. A white model, one character complains, can take drugs "and still get hired. A black model messes up, and she's out." None of the researchers, it seems, read the front-page story in every paper recently.

Worse than misplaced rancour, though, or a lack of enthusiasm for its subject, is Catwalk's wobbly tone. The first words we hear, apparently satirical, are those of a woman correcting an unseen caller, "I'm not 'the make-up lady' – I'm the make-up artist." But it turns out we're supposed to sympathise with the maligned artist, whose character exists simply to recount other dreadful slights and to describe the terrible fate of Salisha, a coke-sniffing model who collapses backstage. Never seen, Salisha is also evoked by her designer lover, a girlfriend and a rival model, but her character is as superficial as theirs, expressed in such clumsy lines as "It was like this girl had developed a ruthless ambition, and no one could stand in her way." Her good qualities are as obscure as her flaws – "We'd just chill for hours, talkin' and shit," says the adoring girlfriend – and we don't learn why she was distinctive enough to be a success.

The play's slipshod nature is exemplified by Salisha's mother, who is beyond belief in every way one can think of. Supposedly in her 50s, but played by an actress who looks half that age, she sounds at times like a character in a Caribbean folk tale ("The morning after he slep wid me he got a grey patch in front of he head"), at times like a conservative suburban matron, fondly recalling the days of fashionable propriety when "your handbag had to match your hat and your shoes." Doling out recipes for fish stew and psychic health – "Imagine a warm light surrounding you" – she's a weird combination of obeah woman, disciplinarian, and aromatherapist.

Sue Mayes' design of screens on which beautiful or baleful images are projected, flanked by rails of cutout gowns with jagged silhouettes, has more stylishness than the entire play, and certainly more than the one garment we see. This supposedly grand creation, of no possible use except to a Cher tribute act, has strings of beads over a transparent bodice joined to a gold fishtail skirt. Such is the confusion of Catwalk, though, that we don't know whether we're supposed to laugh at it or be impressed by its glitter.

To 22 June (020-7328 1000)

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