West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 5 April, 2000

"I suppose there must be something wrong with me for expecting a musical to have consistent characterisation and some kind of narrative for expecting it to be a musical play rather than a musical show." In common with many others, I have often found myself thinking sarcastically along these lines when confronted with the latest compilation musical hung upon a tissue-thin premise. However, shows like Inner City Jam demonstrate that such remarks can sometimes be literally true: if we insist on stubbornly clinging to our demands that "music theatre" should first and foremost be theatre, which happens to have some music attached to it, we can close ourselves off from appreciating much of substance and value.

Helen Miller and Eve Merriam wrote Inner City in the 1970s as a Broadway show. Shezwae Powell and Paul J. Medford (who also directs) have extensively reconceived and rewritten it as a tale of everyday King's Cross folk: the hooker, the hustler, the beggars and the baglady, among others. The musical arrangements remain rooted in Seventies soul/funk, driven along by the authentically loping bass guitar of Wayne Nunes, but the lyrics and book have been revised to give the perennial inner-urban issues poverty, homelessness, the sexual underbelly of the city a more immediate contemporary relevance, as well as taking a pop at the likes of City folk and empty-promising Blairite politicos.

Sometimes the words remain trite (the encore's refrain of "Be a good neighbour, and pass it along" may have made performer Fiona Wade wonder whether she were back in "Just Say No"-era Grange Hill), and sometimes they meander around the more deep-soul songs without a discernibly tight structure. However, sometimes, too, directness and simplicity pay off: when Enyonam Gbesemete's Joy begins a lament for her son, shot dead by a policeman, it builds into a gloriously affirmative gospel hymn that "It's my belief that keeps me going."

As I said above, it need not really matter that former Soul II Soul vocalist Gbesemete plays her character as Ghanaian when speaking yet sings with a strong mid-Atlantic soul voice. Slightly more problematic are the operatic whoops of Angela Moran's singing, but her gloriously dotty bag-lady leads one to accept it as part of her character. Strong dramatic and musical showings, too, from Danny Edwards as a camp but hard-edged hustler and Josie Walker as a cynical hooker, stopping in mid-line of one song to pick an imaginary pubic hair out of her teeth. The characters interweave their way through scenes, creating a tapestry rather than a storyline, and the occasional video projections on the backdrop are largely gratuitous, but overall Inner City Jam emerges ahead of the game.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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