DramaReviewSouth West

Labels – Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter

Writer: Joe Sellman-Leava
Reviewer:Joan Phillips

Labels is an intelligent, touching and often funny, one-man show from Worklight Theatre Company’s Joe Sellman-Leava.

With immigration never far from the news in the run-up to the referendum and the US election, Labels is a timely reminder of the personal and human consequences for those trying to assimilate and settle into new cultures. Sellman-Leava mixes stories from his grandparents, parents and his own experiences to bring us this short, thought-provoking study into racism and language.

Covering himself, and some members of the audience, with stickers Sellman-Leava demonstrates the power of ‘labels’. We need words to express ourselves, and these words can become ‘labels’ – a necessary shorthand for communicating in a complex world. So far so good, but Sellman-Leava also points out the shortfalls when these terms can take on associations which may or may not have been intended, and ultimately how language can be used as an inflammatory weapon. The simple question ‘are you English?’, can simply be a clumsy start to finding common ground with a new acquaintance or a deliberate attempt to magnify differences and cause division.

It is easy to label extremes as racism but the impact of everyday casual forms should not be trivialised. When Sellman-Leava explains how his own much-loved parents needed to change their name in order for his father to get a job just a generation ago, it knocks you sideways. His description of the appalling racism encountered in his own recent Tindr exchange is all the more alarming for its mundanity. He accepts his own inclinations to hit back at those who hurt him and how this can feed the divisions.

Don’t be put off by the tough subject material. Labels is as enjoyable as it is thought-provoking. Sellman-Leava is an extremely likeable performer in complete control of his stage. He engages audience participation, keeps our empathy with his personal stories and honesty about his own vulnerabilities and, with good direction from Katherine Reinthaller, smoothly returns to his difficult themes with the barely a pause for breath. He also has a pretty good repertoire of impersonations. Not many people can imitate Donald Trump, Enoch Powell, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Kate Hopkins, Nick Griffin and more and keep us all amused.

Runs until 11 June2016, then touring | Image: Contributed


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