Anansi and the Grand Prize uses tales of the eponymous spidery trickster god, one of the core figures of much African and Caribbean folklore, to tell the story of a contemporary grifter trying to score big after numerous disappointments. Anansi decides to enter the island’s carnival competition in hopes of winning $25,000. While he goes about his disaster-studded preparations, his wife Tacoma is wooed by Joe Tell, a superstar coming home to prove he’s still a local boy by winning the grand prize.
The show immediately explodes onto stage with energy and music, with Edson Burton (also the playwright) animating the audience, and introducing the figure of Anansi, with tales of powerful and wily animals – later mirrored as Anansi hunts for materials for his costume. Both of these sections are delightful – showing the physical mastery of the cast while never being afraid to undercut the lithe dance and acrobatics with silliness and wit. This sense of energy, humour and talent is woven throughout the show, especially in moments of song and dance, and especially when the revellers, played by Ikay Agu, Zara May Gabiddon and Chane Paries, are onstage. The three performers seem to delight in everything they do – whether that’s mocking Anansi and Tacoma, bickering with each other or dancing. It is infectious and I was always a little sad when they left the stage.
Despite the strong opening and the moments of fun woven throughout there is a slight sense that, like its central trickster, the show is much more beguiling in moments of myth, magic and movement than when it depicts the mundanity of normal life. As the play focuses down onto the story of Anansi and Tacoma, its narrative soon starts to wander. There are moments of real wit and warmth; Tacoma and Jo Tell’s double entendre bantering, Kerry-Ann Waison as Tacoma’s strict but loving mother, and the delicious inevitability of Anansi stealing Tacoma’s rainy day savings as the audience chided him were particular highlights. But the second half particularly over-stretches the story across numerous, and somewhat repetitive, scenes of Tacoma’s wooing, meaning the fabric of the tale finds it difficult to spring back into its initial energy.
But when the carnival finally starts it offers a shot of elaborately-costumed vibrancy, followed by a suitably dramatic climax; fortunes are turned, deceivers are unmasked, and reunions are enjoyed. Amongst this is a nice message about transformation – that transforming yourself can create something beautiful or playful or helpful, but letting yourself be transformed by others into something you never wanted in the first place diminishes you until you’re just a pawn in another’s game. This is one of the many themes that are woven into the tapestry of the show, exploring home, pride and heritage in a way that enjoyably mixes delicacy and brashness.
Anansi and the Grand Prize is at the Bristol Old Vic until the 21st December. More info here.