Writer: Joe Sellman-Leava
Director: Katharina Reinthaller
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
This autobiographical tale is just one man’s story of being different, being ‘the other’ in multicultural Britain. Joe Sellman-Leava was once Joe Patel. His mother and father decided to change their surname after Joe’s father found that an Indian name on his CV was making it difficult to get a job. But there are some labels that it’s more difficult to change, most notably the colour of your skin.
Gloucestershire-born Joe grew up forever being asked where he was from, and ‘Cheltenham’ didn’t seem to be the answer people were looking for. In this hour-long exploration into his own identity, he shares stories of questioning school-mates, jeering racists and a short-lived Tinder hook-up. Set against the babble of anti-immigration rhetoric in the media, Joe’s story, and in turn those of everyone who’s just trying to belong somewhere, makes for a powerful message.
Sellman-Leava is a brilliant mimic. He delivers snippets from political and media speeches – from Enoch Powell to Katie Hopkins, from Jeremy Clarkson to Idi Amin – like a Cassetteboy cut-up, holding up each perpetrator’s name, and the year they uttered these words, handwritten on a piece of paper. It’s notable that little has changed in over fifty years. Three generations on a half Indian British man still gets asked where he’s ‘really’ from.
The simple use of an old portmanteau, full of DIY props and handwritten labels, focuses the attention on Joe’s storytelling. He literally labels himself as his story is revealed, gives sticky labels away to audience members and scatters discarded ones around the stage. Members of the audience are given letters as Joe talks about his maternal grandfather who was a postman, invited to make paper planes from them, and then throw them back to the stage as he talks about his paternal grandfather’s journey from India to Uganda and then on to England. The audience interaction is gentle, effectively creating a sense of camaraderie. Sellman-Leava is a likeable, compelling performer who makes an intimate, instant bond with his audience.
There’s a sense of preaching to the converted. Anyone choosing to see a studio show about race and identity probably doesn’t need much convincing that a hard-line attitude against immigration is wrong. But Sellman-Leava introduces the idea that we all have a sense of the tribal, whether it relates to race, or gender, or accents, or education. He admits that he assumes the worst of those whose social media posts demonstrate poor spelling or grammar. We’d all like to be less judgemental, bit there’s always times when our baser instincts kick in.
Labels deals with a weighty subject, objectionable attitudes and ignorance in a calm, intelligent and often funny way. Sellman-Leava has written a powerful and challenging show that deserves attention.
Reviewed on 13 May 2016