REVIEW: A Strange Loop – Barbican – London


“A Strange Loop” has arrived in the West End, bringing with it a captivating exploration of desires, identity, and the intricate web of self-perception. Led by the exceptional Kyle Ramar Freeman in the role of Usher, this production takes audiences on a transformative journey through the mind of a young, gay, Black writer, who finds solace and creative expression in crafting a musical about his own experiences—a strange loop indeed. With a talented ensemble and a creative team that leaves no stone unturned, this show offers a powerful and thought-provoking experience.

Usher, portrayed with exceptional talent by Kyle Ramar Freeman, is the beating heart of “A Strange Loop.” As a young, gay, Black writer grappling with his own self-perception, Usher’s journey becomes a mirror through which the audience can reflect upon their own desires, fears, and insecurities. Freeman’s portrayal captures the complexity of Usher’s character, showcasing his vulnerability, wit, and unwavering determination to break free from the constraints that society and his own mind have placed upon him. Through Freeman’s nuanced performance, Usher becomes a relatable and compelling protagonist, inviting empathy and understanding from the audience. As we witness Usher’s struggles, hopes, and self-discovery unfold on stage, Freeman’s portrayal leaves an indelible mark, reminding us of the power and importance of embracing our true selves.

Sharlene Hector, in her portrayal of Thought 1, delivers a lovable and memorable performance. Her soaring vocals, combined with impressive acting skills, bring the character to life and elicit uproarious laughter from the audience. After getting to see Sharlene as Alternate Effie in Dreamgirls, I was excited to see her again here – she did not disappoint.

Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea’s portrayal of Thought 2 adds depth and complexity to the narrative, drawing viewers further into Usher’s journey. His performance as ‘Daily Self Loathing’ was hilarious and deserves a special shout out. Yeukayi Ushe impresses with standout moments as Thought 3, infusing the character with a unique energy and capturing the attention of the audience. Tendai Humphrey Sitima’s Thought 4 is a powerful presence, contributing to the ensemble’s strength and cohesion. Danny Bailey’s performance as Thought 5 is captivating, providing nuanced moments that resonate deeply. Eddie Elliott’s portrayal of Thought 6 brings an intriguing dynamic to the character, leaving a lasting impact.

Credit Marc Brenner

Michael R. Jackson’s contribution as a playwright, composer, and lyricist is a standout element of the production. His work showcases a remarkable blend of brutal honesty, humour, and poignant character development. While the first half of the show maintains a strong pace and narrative clarity, there is a slight dip in momentum in the second half. There were moments when I had to play catch up with the narrative as certain scenes are unclear and transition into them unclearly. However, the overall impact of Jackson’s writing is undeniable, leaving the audience with a sense of introspection and emotional resonance.

Under the skillful choreography of Raja Feather Kelly, the movement sequences are a delight to behold. The ensemble’s impeccable execution enhances the storytelling, bringing an added layer of engagement and visual appeal to the production. Stephen Brackett’s direction is a driving force that ensures the audience deeply connects with Usher and his thoughts, allowing for an intimate understanding of his journey.

The musical experience is enriched by the meticulous work of Rona Siddiqui as the music supervisor and Charlie Rosen’s orchestrations. The show’s sound is a testament to their brilliance, immersing the audience in a sonic tapestry that perfectly complements the emotional depth of the story.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design, though initially simplistic, proves to be remarkably effective. The presence of a brick wall unit with six doorways serves as a symbolic representation of Usher’s mind, allowing for seamless transitions in and out of his thoughts. As the show progresses, the set design evolves, providing surprises that contribute to the unfolding narrative.

Montana Levi Blanco’s costume designs for the thoughts are a visual feast. Each character’s attire reflects their unique personality and adds depth to their portrayal. Blanco’s attention to detail is commendable, ensuring that the costumes perfectly align with the themes and tone of the production.

Jen Schriever’s lighting design is a true highlight, illuminating the stage with breathtaking precision. The carefully crafted lighting cues create a mesmerising visual landscape that enhances the storytelling, evoking the desired emotions and atmospheres with finesse.

Drew Levy’s sound design is an integral part of the immersive experience. The intricate interplay of sound effects and musical cues draws the audience further into Usher’s world, amplifying the emotional impact of each scene.

The opening number is a tour de force, setting the stage for what’s to come. The ensemble’s energy and synchronised performances leave a lasting impression, immediately captivating the audience. Additionally, scenes featuring the full ensemble offer moments of pure theatrical magic, showcasing the exceptional collaborative efforts of the creative team.

In its West End transfer, “A Strange Loop” proves to be a must-see production at the Barbican. With its captivating performances, thought-provoking themes, and the sheer audacity of its exploration of self-perception, this show delivers an experience that lingers long after the final bow. While there may be some slight pacing issues in the second half, the strength of the performances, the meticulous creative elements, and the emotional resonance of the story make it worthy of a four-star rating. Prepare to embark on a transformative journey that challenges and enlightens, leaving you with a renewed perspective on identity, creativity, and the complexities of the human mind.

A Strange Loop runs until 9th September. Tickets available here*.

Credit Marc Brenner

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