Playboy of the West Indies – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Music: Clement Ishmael and Dominique Le Gendre

Lyrics: Clement Ishmael, Dominique Le Gendre, Mustapha Matura and Nicolas Kent

Writer: Mustapha Matura

Directors: Clement Ishmael, Nicolas Kent and Dominique Le Gendre

It was early in the twentieth century that John Millington Synge wrote Playboy of the Western World, a play set in County Mayo that was notable for its poetic use of language and celebrating the speech patterns of the Irish. In 1984, Trinidadian playwright, Mustapha Matura created a version, Playboy of the West Indies, set in the West Indies in the 1950s and full of the patois of the area. Sadly, Matura died in 2019 and so was never able to see the musical version of his adaptation, part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, produced.

The first thing one notices on entering the auditorium is that, at least to western eyes, Michael Taylor’s set positively oozes the Caribbean. There are slightly ramshackle shacks – that cleverly revolve to form the interior of the rum shop, where most of the action takes place – a few palms and the most lustrous graduated blue projected onto the stage’s back wall. The costumes, from Natalie Pryce, are also exactly right. And while it may take a few minutes for one’s ear to be fully attuned to the creole spoken, it’s also clear that Matura and the lyricists, Clement Ishmael, Nicolas Kent and Dominique Le Gendre have captured the rhythms and cadences of speech, providing a musicality alongside that inherent in the songs.

After a colourful musical opening, we’re introduced to Peggy, who runs the rum shop with her father, Mikey, though he is more interested in the social aspect of the enterprise rather than the day-to-day running. We also meet the straitlaced Stanley, who is focused on his career – he already owns three of the island’s six fishing boats. Respectability is key to Stanley so, in contrast to most who frequent the rum shop, he rarely drinks. He’s also made an agreement with Mikey that he will marry Peggy. While Peggy doesn’t actually refuse Stanley, it’s fair to say that her demeanour suggests she’s not overjoyed at the prospect.

And then, a mysterious, wide-eyed stranger bursts into the shop – the mystery heightened when his first words are to ask if the police come there. Charismatic and good-looking, Ken, as he tells them to call him, recounts his story of how he killed his own father with a cutlass and buried him in the sugar cane field. This admission, and the sense of danger about him, intoxicates the villagers, including Peggy, and he’s invited to stay the night in the safety of the rum shop, much to Stanley’s distaste. And even the not inconsiderable charms of Mama Benin, sent by Stanley, can lure Ken away.

Ken becomes something of a celebrity in the village until a man claiming to be his father, Mac, appears, wounded but very much alive. It seems Ken might be a simple liar and con man, not the playboy the villagers imagined. What is true is that the plot takes on a life of its own, with more twists to come.

Gleanne Purcell-Brown is superb as Peggy. At the start, we see her resigned to her fate with Stanley and to her life of toil in the shop. Purcell-Brown shows us Peggy’s awakening and her horizons widening as she contemplates what life might be like with the vagabond Ken. She is taken on a rollercoaster ride as events play out, and Purcell-Brown’s understated acting ensures that we understand Peggy and her predicament well and empathise with her.

Derek Elroy largely plays Stanley for laughs in his buttoned suit, shirt and tie. His bird-like movements reflect his personality perfectly and it’s clear to all that there’s a little boy deep inside who just wants his own way. Angela Wynter’s Mama Benin is the archetypal West Indian mama, bustling here and there and organising all in her way with a single-minded determination. In her bright red costume, she dominates the stage every time she appears.

Durone Stokes brings us Ken. We’re never quite sure what to believe about him, the ambiguity brought out well. Stokes shows us how Ken copes with his waxing and waning fortunes, one minute basking in the limelight of the girls’ attention, the next the object of suspicion. Along with the whole cast, he has a fine singing voice which alone might lead one to forgive much of him.

Playboy of the West Indies is an uplifting celebration of life in a mythical fishing village, with a hint of a warning about the cult of celebrity.  The characters are larger than life but entirely believable. The music is joyful and it’s hard not to leave smiling widely.

Runs Until 2 July 2022

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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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