Leave to Remain

Lyric Hammersmith

It’s nearly 15 years since Bloc Party released their debut album Silent Alarm, an album that for a certain generation was seminal and also notable because it catapulted the band’s lead singer Kele Okereke into the indie music limelight whilst dispelling a myth that British indie music was a white only space.

The script and performances shine with numerous takeaway lines, delivered perfectly.

Okereke’s influence on a generation of would be musicians and millennials can still be felt and heard (if you know where to find it) and Bloc Party’s contribution to a zeitgeist moment in British Music is undeniable.

All this serves to make Okereke’s first venture into musical theatre a keenly anticipated prospect with the potential to stir up memories and nostalgia for peak Bloc Party fans.

Whilst there are sonic, poetic and lyrical shades of that here, Leave To Remain delivers an altogether more curious and strangely satisfying experience than his or the band’s recent albums. Here he teams up with screenwriter and producer Matt Jones, and director Robby Graham, to create a vibrant and urgent love story for our times.

Obi (Tyrone Huntley) and Alex (Billy Cullum) are a young gay couple leading busy London lives. When Alex’s visa comes into question, their relationship takes a turn. Marriage is an option, but the timing isn’t perfect, and it means confronting their families and their pasts.

Merging music, movement and drama the production rescues itself from an uneven opening sequence where the staging, speech and songs feel so busy that it’s difficult to retain information and a sense of investment in the events.

However, a pulsing nightclub set sequence here offers the first taste of Rebecca Brower’s and Anna Watson’s clever set and lighting design, which bring to mind the vast levels of the Printworks nightclub, hipster warehouse spaces, glossy music videos and golden era musical motion pictures when the backdrops and props disappear or slide into place.

Then once things settle down, the script and performances shine with numerous takeaway lines, delivered perfectly.

“I need to tweet my flock” and “Cultural Imperialist” drew big laughs but not nearly as big as a brilliant joke about Jollof rice at Jamie Oliver’s expense.

Levity is cleverly woven into the fabric of the story to release tension but also to drop some honest and necessary observations. A casual remark about the sexual fetishisation of black men, disguised in a joke about LL Cool J and 50 Cent was a particular favourite of mine and drew gasps from the audience.

The balance between gut wrenching real drama and humour is often perfect and memorable, which makes some of the songs lacking that deftness more noticeable. That’s not to say the songs are bad but they don’t linger long enough in the memory to justify their presence in some places, even if the intoxicating cues of Afrobeat and beautiful live score from a solo guitarist are toe tappingly and head boppingly badass.

Leave to Remain delivers more than an LGBTQ message and it will send you away with a sense of hope and hunger for change

Yet there is so much to like here. A stunning slow motion flashback sequence looks way more effortless than it must’ve been for the actors to execute and you can literally taste the sweet ravey sweat of another club scene later in the show. Each time the production stumbles back it takes two gleeful leaps forward. Its visual style is something special but it is driven largely by strong, spirited and considered performances.

Tyrone Huntley (Obi) and Billy Cullum (Alex) make a believable and likeable couple. Both are given huge amounts of emotional levels to reach but Huntley carries most of the heavy lifting in the musical numbers. However Cullum surprises late on with a beautiful solo that soars and shows a real raw range.

Everyone is literally on song here, it’s a fantastic ensemble piece however I did find myself magnetically drawn to Aretha Ayeh’s sensitive, charismatic and electric portrayal of Obi’s sister Chichi.

Each moment of hers struck me like lightning.

Okereke recently said that “every day in Brexit Britain feels like living on a knife edge” and Leave To Remain is more than a whimsical look at the reality of the uncertainty felt by many as their futures get more and more out of their control.

Regardless of your stance or sexuality, this play delivers more than an LGBTQ message and it will send you away with a sense of hope and hunger for change.

NEED TO KNOW: Leave to Remain is at the Lyric Hammersmith until 16 February 2019 | see listing for booking info