Review A Strange Loop, Barbican, London by James Ellis

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Photo credit: Mark Brenner

The Barbican is ablaze with a new musical offering. A Strange Loop remains an unforgettable encounter, leaving many fine images and tunes in the brain. The songs by Michael R. Jackson are packed into this show, no interval and no prisoners here. Our leading man Usher, is his namesake at the theatre putting on The Lion King. As a young, black, gay, overweight male, he tries to find his way through and writing musicals is his escape, his passion. Yet, can Usher make it as a musical master?

There is a lot going on in this show, many themes tackled and many relatable moments for a lot of different people. Usher is very sweet as a character, down trodden by his fellow gays, snobs, family and more. A wonderful ensemble of singers dubbed his ‘Thoughts’ loiter around the stage and fill him with insecurities. Said ensemble are just one of the many highlights of the show, I’m thinking back to the outrageous musical number where black figures from history come to haunt Usher: Maya Angelo, Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, aside an embodiment of 12 Years A Slave, clutching an Oscar. The show does have many shocking moments, never shying away from sexual, racist and homophobic bursts that left us all upset.

Director Stephen Brackett has made a wonderful production, fabulous use of the stage. I’ve yet to recover from the head turning finale scenes featuring gospel, a 80s style sitcom and even a funeral. Amazing how honest we hear truths about the parental figures in this story, the lack of support for Usher as an artist and as a gay man. Some of these songs are so catchy that I cannot even sing them now due to the context within.

The show very much belongs to our Usher: Kyle Ramar Freeman. Hardy ever off stage and with great comic timing, I was taken so much with how endearing the role is. You need a great voice and even bigger theatrical presence, Kyle does all this and more with aplomb. His brings these truths out to the role, the exhausted, bottled up emotions exploding at the end were majestic. His turn as the gospel preacher was another sensation.

This was a surreal, outrageous thrill that needs to seen at once.

A Strange Loop continues at The Barbican till 9 Sept 2023.

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