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Black (Theatre Royal Stratford East, London): Review

black Fade to black. Le Gateau Chocolat in 'Black'. Photograph: Courtesy of Robbins Photographic.

Le Gateau Chocolat’s Black is a show of such flooring visceral impact that it leaves a permanent dent on your very being.

From growing up as a young boy in Nigeria, to studying law, and working at NHS Direct, Le Gateau Chocolat’s autobiographical opera Black tackles more about identity than just the colour of skin.

Libretto

Le Gataeu Chocolat has been a favourite of mine on the cabaret scene for some time. This sensational queer performer often appears in drag and has an absolutely astonishing deep bass operatic voice that is set to stun at every given turn. Chocolat wowed the crowds as The Balladeer in the National Theatre’s amazing The Threepenny Opera in a cross-genre performance that garnered him an Olivier nomination, as well as regularly appearing in front of a more “lively” crowd at queer venue The Glory alongside pioneering performance art legends such as Johnny Woo.

However, Black is not the usual camp shenanigans that Chocolat is better know for, and this operetta explores Chocolat’s Nigerian childhood, and struggle with depression: a different but just as character defining “black” as skin colour and culture. To tell this story, Chocolat, working with co-writer Ed Burnside, combines animation, opera, pop, musicals, deep south gospel, and comedy for an absolutely wild and devastating whirlwind of a show.

In case you haven’t already noticed, I’ve decided to review Black as an opera, because in essence, it’s very much that: a story told in a very operatic setting including a full chamber ensemble to boot. Although, in reality, Black is really its own unique entity as it draws from so many genre influences that are clearly very dear to Chocolat. Therefore, to describe the writing as a libretto is a little misleading as Black’s success is much more about some fine choices, curation, and treatment of songs rather than a traditional libretto or even a musical book. Numbers range from Richard Wagner and Henry Purcell, to Whitney Housten, Billy Holiday, Leonard Bernstein, and even an original piece.

What’s great about what Chocolat does with all these is superbly emotionally illustrate moments in their story whilst cleverly finding a dual and deeper meaning in both the song and the emotions they evoke in Black. I swear, you’ll never quite be able to listen to “I Want to Dance With Somebody” again without shedding a heart wrenching tear. It’s particularly amazing at how the songs which, whilst having Chocolat’s trademark luscious razzmatazz and camp, never ever feel insincere, fake, or egotistical, as there’s a blazing core of visceral soul-bearing is in each and every one, adding an intoxicating hook to every verse.

There is also an exhausting emotional pacing to Black like no other show you’re likely to have seen, going from heartfelt and crushing personal depth to laughing at loud and back at whiplash speed. It’s tsunami after tsunami of emotive highs and devastation, resulting in you leaving the theatre drowned in both euphoria and gut-wrenching brokenness: a deftly hard-hitting and honest story that does nothing but haunt you for days afterwards. Everything is candid and beautifully put, from dealing with home-town homophobia, to mental health, and struggling with body issues and weight. Black is an intricate and delectable portrait of Chocolat not just as an artist, but as a human being who’s been on a most remarkable personal journey.

I have to admit, that reviewing Black had come at a very trying time for me. Two weeks prior, my depression got so bad that I ended up in A&E because I wanted to end my life. Therefore, hearing Chocolat’s accounts of their experience with their own “black” hit a real chord. But this is not because it was upsetting to watch, but because at how truthful and frank the discussion were. I couldn’t put into words what coping with depression is like better myself, and it’s humbling to hear things put so boldly and realistically without opting for empty positivity. As well as being a great show, personally, it’s been an inspiration and a sobering and introspective part of my living with depression. Even if you don’t directly share in these struggles, you can’t help but empathise with your deepest being after seeing Black.

Direction & Production

If Black’s concept and libretto weren’t good enough, the production, albeit small scale, is perfectly executed. Nothing but a bed, a bulb-bordered piece of gauze, and some projected animation, the production none the less feels lavishly epic. Joshua Carr’s lighting design is also full of amazing little tricks that help to brings out an atmospheric and brilliant emotional depth to complement Chocolat’s story.

The Pshappha Ensemble, a chamber orchestra that accompany Chocolat, are one of the finest I’ve heard in a long time. Not only was there nary a wrong note or fudged moment, they play with a fantastic sense of ensemble but also have an emotional dynamism and resonance to what Black is about. Under the command of Julian Kerry, they’re a phantasmagorical sensation that drive Black as much as Chocolat’s story and performance.

Kerry also deserves a huge amount of praise for their arrangements of the songs used in Black as played by the Pshappha Ensemble. They have an aural intricacy, intelligence, and emotive vividness that couldn’t complement the show better.

Performance

I think there’s actually very little that I can say about Chocolat’s performance that would ever do it justice. If you’ve never seen Chocolat perform live, you simply haven’t lived. Their voice is richer and silkier than any gourmet confection-lover’s wet-dream, and far more satisfying. Chocolat’s talents can certainly be placed up there with the greats like Brynn Terfel, and even far surpasses the likes of Alfie Boe on, not just an level of operatic bombast, but on sheer presence and performance.

The best thing about Chocolat in Black though is that, despite the vast grandness of a venue like Theatre Royal Stratford East, the performance is so incredibly intimate and sincere at every given second, commanding the space as if it were a tiny cabaret lounge. There is no-one quite like Gateau Chocolat, and there probably never will be again.

Verdict

Black will leave your floored, exhausted, and exhilarated. A true original and unforgettable experience, I couldn’t urge anyone to see this more if they ever have the fortune to.

Black was reviewed during it’s run at Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, E15 1BN, between 4 – 8 April 2017. For more information about Le Gateau Chocolat visit legateauchocolat.com.