Writer &Performer: Joe Sellman-Leava
Director: Katharina Reinthaller
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
Venue: New Wolsey Studio, Ipswich
In an age of increasing reliance on the soundbite, the label’s we give people may be more visible than ever but what are the impacts on those labels, those pre-conceived notions, on those individuals who we lump together as some stereotype?
Though some may think the likes of Katie Hopkins, Jeremy Clarkson, Nigel Farage and David Starkey have invented the acidic jibe in relation to immigration and race but the fact is it is a much older phenomenon. From Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers Of Blood’ speech to a 1960s Conservative Election campaign that used the N word, race has always been used a verbal sparring ground.
It’s a subject Joe Sellman-Leava explores in his solo piece,Labels. Sellman-Leava begins with extracts from the aforementioned Powell, Hopkins, Clarkson, Farage and co. If we hadn’t heard these actual speeches on TV or read them in newspapers we’d believe they were a work of fiction, instead of the depressingly sad reality.
For Sellman-Leava though those labels have a deeper, more personal meaning. Despite being born in Cheltenham, throughout his life he has been asked one question over and over again. ‘Where are you from?’ Labels explores not only Sellman-Leava’s heritage, his family’s routes in India and Uganda but the wider issue of prejudice and race and the boxes we are places in to conform to the need for a society to categorise and define.
Sellman-Leava is a master storyteller. Charming, erudite and witty, he soon has the audience clinging to every word. There’s more than the occasional sharp intake of breath as we are shocked into confronting some of the more unsavoury corners of society but there’s also plenty of laughs along the way. Our narrator turns into a walking billboard, sticking labels on himself, as well as random members of the audience. Snap judgements and instant decisions that shape our opinions. There’s expert wordplay on display here, a mastery of both aural and visual interpretations of words and the power they have to wound or to heal.
This is far from a lecture though. Through his journey Sellman-Leava discovers that he, like us also makes snap judgements. Does his mimicry of his father’s accent make him racist? Do his decisions on Tinder balance out those decisions people make on him?
Labels is one of those rare evenings in a theatre in which you both feel like you have made a new friend but also reconnected with someone you’ve known but lost. We’re by no means perfect but an hour spent with Sellman-Leava gives you hope that together the bigotry of Hopkins, Trump and Farage will fade and that the world can learn to listen rather than label.
Reviewed on 29 May 2016 and continues to tour | Image:Ben Borely