Creators: Robin French and Alex Brown
Director: Alex Brown
Reviewer: John Kennedy
Complementing the programme’s Punk Font front cover, the audience are welcomed with hi-viz stickers proclaiming ‘NAZIS are No Fun’. Evidence alone that, not only did Rock Against Racism coalesce seemingly impossible, eclectic musical genres under a common cause, they also had a wry sense of ironic understatement.
Mixed-race, Denise’s bitter-sweet, love letter to her teenage years is an elegiac, warts n’all, bovver-boot in the balls, romp and stomp through the mid-70s as she and best friend, Trudi, become politicised (with a small p to begin with) against the rise of Enoch Powell & Brew XI excess-fulled racism. Trudi’s mom nursed through the night following the Birmingham Pub Bombings. The guy whose knee she’d just stitched-up, noticing her Irish accent, spits in her face. Things were notching-up elsewhere.
Nathan Queeley-Dennis, revels in his duel characters, Dennis, the only-Black-Punk-in-the-village, and Denise’s profligate, tumbleweed, transient dad. He’s their punch-bag emotional amanuensis, an Everyman/girl guide through their journey of hormonal hiatus and crisis-strewn learning-curves. For Denise, at least, it will result in cathartic, emancipation.
Both Lauren Foster as Denise and Hannah Millward, playing Trudi, serve up a brown & mild pint-glass frothing with full-on convincing Brummie twang, its terse nasality best approximated by those able to recall waiting for the Outer Circle number 11 at Aston Cross on a February foggy morning breathing in the ambient fug of Ansells’ Brewery, The HP Sauce factory and Saltley Gas Works (when there wasn’t a Strike riot kicking-off). The play is very much Brum-centric though a due laudatory homage is paid to Coventry – the once epicentre of music’s brave new world – Two Tone Records.
Writers/Co-creators, Robin French/Alex Brown craft a deft narrative device by re-appropriating contemporaneous, iconic pop songs with new lyrics. Potentially anathema to the purists but done with convincing verve, wit and vibrant contextual relevance that few could complain of and will have many scurrying back to their cupboard forlorn vinyl stacks.
Expositional transitions can seamlessly segue from vernacular prose banter into half-rhyme/free-verse. Whilst ever so wisely eschewing any Rap referencing, the cadence of Caribbean folk-rhyming drawn from centuries old African Griots story-tellers simmers in the sub-texts.
The anachronous Sunshine Of Your Love bass riff sounds suspiciously incongruous until Denise’s dad reappears and takes the girls to see Eric Clapton at The Odeon, New Street. ‘Slow-Hands, during his ‘self-massage’ in a whisky-bottle years of alcohol-fuelled faux-patriotism spews his infamous, ‘Go-home, foreigners,’ rant. A grotesque irony lost on ‘Mississippi Nigel Farage’ (as Stewart Lee would have him) when he segues into Bob Marley’s I Shot The Sheriff.
Denise becomes more involved with Rock Against Racism. Her burgeoning self-awareness, not least her confusion as to her identity and heritage, provoked by ever-more blatant racist slurs and National Front public bile-tantrums, becomes the catalyst for increasing friction between her and Trudi, this conflict exacerbated by Trudi discovering copies of the racist magazine Bulldog in her brother’s drawer.
For Trudi and Denise the intensity of the Rock Against Racism gigs is revelatory – a sensory baptism where Dub and Ska ganja fumes morph with balcony-projectile Punk gobbing. It just needs that classic racist wind-up tableau of Steel Pulse sashaying on-stage bobbing their KKK clown-caps to Handsworth Revolution.
The play explores assertions that the once embracing assimilation of reggae and its myriad sub-genres in to the Skin-Head aesthetic became toxified by National Front/football terrace thuggery infiltration. For those there at the time, a more simplistic, and essential survival tactic was to assume they were so moronic as to not realise their musical heroes were actually black. A familiar device with many dramas set in a working-class context sees the two young protagonists, having followed their separate and very different destinies, chance to meet again as adults. It can be a cliched trope and Rebel Music errs tenuously close to this when Trudi and Denise inadvertently cross paths at a 2019 Specials reunion gig. However, the writers allow this brief encounter to establish a convincing, though certainly not a not happily-ever-after, denouement. Understandably steeped in nostalgia, the play’s themes are evermore desperately contemporary than ever. The rise of bilious #me-victim extreme rhetoric being legitimised by those who now consider the law to be, at best, advisory as when suits. Rebel Music is an immersive, up-lifting, not least, salutary experience, exploring universal themes of essential, unifying morality and being damn good fun going about it.
Touring some inclusively appropriate West Midlands venues, Rebel Music might not immediately trouble the West End anytime soon, though its Birmingham essential credentials might nudge a more enterprising BBC Commissioning Editor to consider a Christmas Special Dr Who/Two Tone/Punk/Peaky Blinders tie-in.
Runs Until 5 October 2019 and on tour | Image: Graeme Braidwood