Labels – Old Joint Stock, Birmingham

Writer: Joe Sellman-Leava
Director: Katharina Reinthaller
Reviewer: John Kennedy

You’ve bought your vital vinyl Stones album at last. Problem – that hideous price label has to come off. But it leaves a tell-tale adhesive circular ghost mark mocking you. The Spectre at the feast forever spitting in your Goat’s Head Soup. That’s what labels do – damn you with the mark of Cain. You’re born with them; they might even be the death of you.

But just try telling that to tonight’s writer/performer, Joe Sellman-Leava. He’ll lend a sympathetic ear for people bedeviled by labels. Up to a point. But he has his own story to tell that has the audience stuck to their seats for an unsettling but revelatory sixty minutes. See, he’s been burdened with labels, defined by them, judged by them all his life. Tonight he’s smothered in them – near literally. Is this a cryptic homage to  Dylan’s 1965 Subterranean Homesick Blues alley-way film clip and the throw-away lyric cue cards? But where there’s no going back home for Joe when he’s already here. ‘Where’re you from, Joe? Where’re you really from from?’ Asks his Essex University friend. Time to exorcise your demons, Joe.

For Joe it all began in 1972 when puppet buffoon Ugandan President, Idi Amin, turned vicious dictator, expelled approximately sixty thousand Asian families, including Joe’s grandparents, for undermining the integrity of the African ideal. Ninety days, no more. One suitcase, no more. A Commonwealth passport and, with forced, unctuous humility, being grateful for their lives. All property, assets and monies confiscated. A new world, a new life in England but baggaged and labelled with the stigmata fear of unwanted Commonwealth citizens in transit. Not wanted on voyage/not wanted on arrival. However, The UK behaved, for the most part, with graciousness.

Tonight, Worklight Theatre’s award-winning show demonstrates, with battery-acid irony and merciless mimicry, that we don’t have to be a foil to these labels. But it’s a bloody and vindictive process that has an insidious tendency in repeating itself. Hence Sellman-Leava’s trawling and discarding the rancid crowd-bait sloganeering of Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of blood’ rant and the bulldog-gobbed BNP’s Nick Griffin. Throw in, or rather throw-up, to someTop Gear harmless blokey banter and the foot-in-mouth diseased bile of Katie Hopkins. Now it is fashionable to be counter PC, to speak out for the stifled voices of common sense British values. Echoes perhaps, of Rowan Atkinson’s Cabinet Minister’s Conference speech palliative? ‘Don’t get me wrong – I really like curry! But, now we’ve got the recipe…’

This is a scalding show, viscerally honest, nuanced with caged rage. At the same time a soul being succoured by the better side of his angels but still keeping his alternative Lucifer on a tight, rebellious leash just in case. while he turns away from his worst word imaginable – we are confronted with it, label-stickered on his back throughout the performance. Ugly as an ox-blood polished skinhead’s boot.

‘When I was four years old my Dad was told our surname might be stopping him from getting a job. So we changed it (from Patel). It worked.’ Being called ‘Gandhi Pandi’ at school is never cool however much Richard Attenborough might try to put the iniquities of the Raj under the cinematic spotlight. His mother is white. But how could she marry an Indian if she doesn’t like curry? What does she eat? Selman is her family name, Leava part of his father’s ancestry. Honestly, you wouldn’t even know speaking to him on the ‘phone. A Tinder dialogue is another matter altogether.

‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’ It was a Gandhi quote bound to impress the more liberally minded Essex Uni sisters – ‘But Joe, honestly, where did you say you come from – from really?’ Condescending curiosity as subtle as a runaway train crash. Joe collects up all the pieces and, as is his way, carefully labels them and begins to put his life back on track again. Near perfect, intimate theatre. Should be school curriculum compulsory.

Reviewed on 10 March 2017 | Image: Worklight Theatre

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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