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Review: A Strange Loop at the Barbican

Full of joyous, laugh-out-loud moments, A Strange Loop by Michael R Jackson is an absolute delight from start to finish. This meta production (of a black queer writer writing a play about a black queer writer, writing a play about a black queer writer), tows the line between hysterically camp, painfully introspective, and genuinely tender in a beautiful way. 


Firstly, the casting is absolutely on-point, with the protagonist “Usher” (played by Kyle Ramar Freeman) on stage for the entirety of the 1 hour 40 min runtime, impressively buoyant and full of energy throughout. His fellow cast are portrayals of his inner, often intrusive, thoughts that reflect different sides of his personality, performed in way that echoed the singing muses from Disney’s 90’s classic Hercules - I suspect a deliberate choice as the protagonist refers to themselves as a ‘Disney Usher’ from the start.


The narrative was sometimes a little tangled, as you might expect from a play named after Hofstadter’s 1989 phenomenon (and a Liz Phair song), a “Strange Loop” in which “whenever movement is made upwards or downwards through the levels of some hierarchical system, the system unexpectedly arrives back where it started”. This is by no means a criticism, with the lack of conclusive elements being an integral part of the story, ending with a frustrating ambiguity that was more reflective of real life than the cookie-cutter ending we could have had. It’s rare in the theatre to know with 100% certainty that a standing ovation is going to happen before it happens.


We are introduced in the play to Usher’s parents, a loving but bigoted couple who want only the best for Usher, which in their eyes equates to removing the sin of the “homosex’alities” and writing a nice gospel play instead. His father, presented as an alcoholic and ignorant man, painfully asks Usher if, since he’s attracted to men, that means he’s attracted to him as well. His mother expresses her anxiety through phone calls and voicemails where she calls to tell Usher how much she loves him, whilst guilting him in an overt way and dealing with her own ingrained religious beliefs. For the complexity of this relationship to be expressed in such an intricate way, with such a condensed cast of characters, in a musical format, is impressive to say the least.


In terms of the songs, they are catchy and explosive, with big broadway hits such as “Precious Little Dream / AIDS is God’s Punishment” encouraging the audience to clap along to the gospel repetition of the lyrics, and the more introspective “Inner White Girl”, sitting somewhere between a pop hit and a country song. Helped along by the choir of his inner thoughts, Ramar Freeman sings with desperate emotion and impressive range. 


The are often graphic themes in the play are delivered brazenly but sensitively by the cast, particularly evident in the “Inwood Daddy” scene where Usher places himself at the whims of a white “bro” that conveys racist stereotypes and uncomfortable fetishisation.


A Strange Loop manages the impossible task of portraying challenges faced by black queer people in a way that is heartwarming and funny but reflective and genuinely heartbreaking at times. On until 9th September at the Barbican theatre, this is absolutely not one to miss. Even if you aren’t usually a Broadway fan, this musical is a must see, rivalling Hamilton in its depth and songwriting, winning every ‘Best Musical’ award on Broadway, and the Pulitzer Prize. 


A Strange Loop

At the Barbican until Saturday 9 September

Tickets and info:

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