Labels – Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

Writer/Performer: Joe Sellman-Leava
Director/Dramaturg: Katharina Reinthaller
Reviewer: Daniel Perks


Katie Hopkins. Idi Amin. Jeremy Clarkson. Nigel Farage. All of these people over the years have taken a public view on immigration. All of these people will be remembered in history for polarising opinions. All of these are quoted at the start of Joe Sellman-Leava’s piece,Labels.

While beginning with a series of quotes that Sellman-Leava extracts either from his pocket or from a worn-out and battered suitcase, the show itself transcends the immigration debate and focusses on a wider question around society’s need to place people in categories. race, skin colour, place of birth, even ‘friend or foe’; Sellman-Leavatakes the audience on a journey through his experiences of being labelled, shunned, cast out. From the school playground to university freshers week to finding love on Tinder, Sellman-Leava is constantly plagued with the question: “Where are you from?” and, despite being born in Gloucestershire, no-one is satisfied when he tells them that he is from Cheltenham.

Directed by dramaturg Katharina Reinthaller, the one-man show is a witty combination of personal and public. It asks big, sweeping questions about pre-conceived judgements while also looking inward at Sellman-Leava’s family and their journey from India to Uganda to Great Britain. Every time Sellman-Leava tells a story or brings up a question, he slowly fills his body with the labels that he has been subjected to, avoiding and fighting with all his life. The audience is given labels too – handed out as quickly as the snap judgements that society makes about each other. Just when the labels seem to have run out, more are pulled from a suitcase or from a pocket, a never-ending stream of categories and segregation.

As a performer, Sellman-Leava has obviously taken a great deal of time honing and working on this production. He stands next to the audience as he recounts his journey and is in complete control at every point. Pace, emotion, impact – all of these have been carefully conceived and precisely executed. Every time he becomes engrossed in the story and overly passionate he seems to catch himself, switching in a single instant from powerful and enraged to shy, withdrawn and almost apologetic. This is not a preacher declaring what is wrong with the world from the safety of their soapbox; this is a man who is not ashamed to look inwardly and uncover prejudices and pre-conceptions within himself.

The labels upon his body are not easy to wear, some are placed out of sight on his back in an attempt to conceal and overlook them. But all are visible, all are put out for the audience to see in the hope that Sellman-Leava is no longer judged by them. Amid stories, stickers, and even paper aeroplanes, there is a sense that the performer and the audience reach an agreement, an understanding to look past those labels and see the people beneath.


Runs until 30 April 2016 and then tours | Image:Ben Borely

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