You can almost feel the August heat rising off the pavement in J’Ouvert. Originally performed at Theatre 503 in 2019 and remounted as part of Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season, Yasmin Joseph’s debut play, a beautifully rendered love letter to Notting Hill Carnival, is a kinetic, strikingly confident piece of work that also happens to be the most “live” that live theatre has felt since its return.
Nadine (Gabrielle Brooks) has been practising her routine for weeks: her eyes are set on becoming “the face of the fete” and winning an all-inclusive holiday to St Lucia – if she can shake off her anxiety. She is aided by the spirit of Claudia Jones, the founder of Notting Hill Carnival, who cajoles and encourages her during various ghostly intervals. Helping, too, is her best friend Jade (Sapphire Joy), a nascent political activist whose burgeoning friendship with the posh, well-intentioned (if obnoxious) founder of grassroots group West London Rising, Nisha (Annice Bopari), threatens her and Nadine’s long-standing friendship.
Joseph’s play is composed like a technicolour odyssey, with Jade and Nadine weaving their way through west London over the course of a single day. They bump into an array of characters, from a couple of amiable “seen it all before” Caribbean elders who reminisce about the early days of Carnival, to the silent Notting Hill residents who watch with baleful suspicion from behind their boarded up townhouse windows. It is not a purely jubilant piece of work – J’Ouvert is set in summer 2017, and the raw grief and anger surrounding the Grenfell Tower fire hangs over the festivities, and over Jade in particular. Though it is never named directly, Joseph suggests its impact through some of the conversations these women have: can these pockets of celebration be considered revolutionary, or is the path forward purely rooted in civic organisation?
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