Princess and the Hustler is in many ways a classic Family Drama – complete with a mostly living room setting, intergenerational tension and arguments around every corner. But into this dynamic it deftly weaves both reality and fantasy, in the form of a young girl’s pageant dreams and the true story of the Bristol bus boycott.
For me (someone who admittedly has quite a difficult time with Family Dramas), there are some moments that feel like they land a little heavily, with each line establishing or embellishing a conflict or character in a way that can stray a little into cliché. For each of these, though, there is another moment of real beauty, sincerity or wit, with the second half particularly hitting its stride. The childish nobility and generosity of Princess saying she would be okay with her half-sister, leaving even though it would make her sad, is a moment that rings particularly true. The show also contains one of my new favourite moments of canny directing; a family dinner (in which the rules of theatre dictate that actors must sit only on three sides of a table) is ingeniously staged by having a son purposely move away from the space cleared for him by his estranged father, turning a logistical sight-line issue into a moment of insight into the characters’ relationships.
The play is remarkably well cast (and not just because Kudzai Sitima and Emily Burnett as the young girls almost scarily cut years off themselves). Central to the show is Donna Berlin’s strong and put upon Mavis and Seun Shote’s charming but unreliable Wendell; the dynamic between them shifts in a way that maintains much of the tension in the show. Fode Simbo as the stubborn and principled Junior and Jade Yourell as the steely and fragile Margot make up a well-drawn cast of characters. They play out their drama in an absolutely gorgeous set, designed by Simon Kenny, with vibrant 60s patterns adorning every surface, and the entire backwall swaying in reference to Mavis’ job as a curtain maker.
The play touches lightly on the bus boycott itself, always focusing closely on how it affects the central family. Most interesting in the play is the always shifting relationship between politics, morals and personal relationships. The fact that characters take admirable political action doesn’t discount their personal failings and vice versa – instead, playwright Chinonyerem Odimba creates complex, nuanced portraits of real people. Forgiveness is frequently explored in the play, but never easily given.
I generally have a lot of feelings, both positive and negative, about the use of community choruses (which I’ve written previously about here). It took me quite a while to realise there was a chorus in Princess and the Hustler, instead thinking there were paid performers who were being VERY underused. The group is split into a male and female chorus, and it is the male chorus who appear first – four of them chanting and holding placards in support of the bus boycott. It felt a little underpowered and odd – were a community chorus really needed for such a small moment? It was a shame that this moment didn’t work better, because when the female chorus finally appeared what was seemingly being aimed for was entirely achieved. This parade of black beauty queens was joyous and lent a real sense of community and continuity to the themes of the play, and buoying the audience up as they left its world.
Princess and the Hustler runs until 23 February, then tours until 13 April. More information here.