Monday, 10 June 2019

Review: Yvette (China Plate)

Friday 7th June 2019
The Studio, Royal Exchange, Manchester

On Friday, I attended a performance of Yvette at The Studio, Royal Exchange, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a version of this review on this week’s A Helping of History, but here’s the blog version…

Written and performed by Urielle Klein-Mekongo and directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, Yvette is a one-woman show that uses original music and spoken word to convey a powerful story about growing up with a secret. (You may remember that I reviewed Obisesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen last year.) The production is presented by China Plate.

In the intimate setting of the Royal Exchange’s Studio space, a simple – but very effective – stage is set. A room in a house is conjured by the use of screens and door, with a coat stand to one side, a bath to the other, and single mic stand in the middle. It is to this microphone that Klein-Mekongo heads when she makes her entrance.

The show is about Evie, a thirteen-year-old black girl, growing up in Neasden with her mother. From the first moment she takes the mic, Klein-Mekongo is completely convincing as a young teen – the way her school uniform sits awkwardly on her body, the shyness with which she initially faces the audience, the buoyant joy she takes in creating and performing music, all serve to create a strong sense of character before the audience have heard a single word. Although the show is, in many ways, dominated by vocal and verbal performance, I found Klein-Mekongo’s embodiment of Evie to be one of the real strengths of the play, as her quick switches between joyful, childlike confidence to discomfort (and even disgust) perfectly capture the instability of teenage physicality and identity.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

Evie’s story is told through musical performance, spoken word and acted vignettes. Klein-Mekongo uses a loop pedal throughout to create a soundtrack that, at first, is up-beat and rhythmic, inspired by garage and R+B and accompanied by happy dance moves that, again, are movingly evocative of early teenage femininity. We learn quickly that Evie loves music, Pokemon… and boys. She has a fractious relationship with her mother – a character who ‘appears’ on stage when Klein-Mekongo switches register – who is convinced Evie is on a bad path.

Evie has a crush on her friend Lewis, and is beginning to suspect that he might feel the same way. She has decided that she wants to lose her virginity to him at a party. Again, musical performances (including a hilarious number in which Klein-Mekongo ‘duets’ with herself to give a flavour of Evie and Lewis’s friendship) convey this part of the story.

However, there is another, darker story shadowing this innocence and exuberance. Evie’s narration is periodically interrupted by a sharp burst of white noise, which visibly overwhelms her and – at one point – causes her to shout out in protest at an unseen figure. ‘You’re trying to make me talk about it,’ she says, before calming herself and counting down from five until the static subsides.

This use of white noise as an intrusion and disruption of narrative connects Yvette to the other play I reviewed this week: dressed., which not only touches on some of the same themes, but is also (like Yvette) based on a true story. This use of the same auditory technique to signal the disruptive incoherence brought about by trauma suggests some comparison between the two productions – both plays are concerned with representing the effects of sexual trauma on the female body, and the impact this has on a sense of identity – however, they are very different shows, based on very different stories.

Photo credit: Helen Murray

There are hints from the beginning as to what the other story in Yvette entails. A man’s jacket hangs ominously on the coat stand; Evie talks about an ‘uncle’ who has come to stay; she makes reference to her desire to be loved. Another aspect of this is the play’s engagement with race and colourism, and the way this erodes the young woman’s sense of self-worth. Evie is mocked and – eventually – humiliated by a girl called Patrice, who she describes as a ‘lighty’. This antagonistic colourism – with the darker-skinned Evie being denigrated by the ‘lighty’ girls – coupled with her mother spitting that she ‘looks like [her] father’ builds to a painful and searing exploration of the true fragility and vulnerability of the young girl.

And it certainly is painful. Yvette builds to two climactic and intertwined sequences that are breath-taking in their visceral representation. Klein-Mekongo’s powerful physical performance, along with a far darker use of the show’s ubiquitous loop pedal (now sampling spoken lines and looping them, literally ad nauseam), pulls no punches. It is perfectly staged, but incredibly difficult to watch. Unlike dressed., in which the moment of assault is narrated in complete darkness at the beginning of the production, Yvette’s trauma is staged in raw and unflinching detail – with the audience’s attention being directed to the embodiment of this trauma, in a very arresting way. In dressed., the audience is asked to close their eyes as the story is told; in Yvette, it is impossible to draw your eyes away.

Yvette is described as a show about ‘a stolen childhood’. The audience watches as a seemingly happy and innocent girl is torn apart and broken down. One of the difficulties of the play is that there is no staging of her healing. While there is some reflection on subsequent events, and a commandingly beautiful song about self-worth and identity at the end, this is not a show about the process of rebuilding that identity. Ultimately, Yvette is a show about survival, rather than rebirth or transformation, which is underlined by the bodily transformation that is notable when comparing the first and last musical performances. With a sustained and compelling performance from Klein-Mekongo, creative and effective music and musical technique, and pitch-perfect direction from Obisesan, Yvette is an assured, assertive and intense piece of theatre, with a thought-provoking rawness that will stick with you after you’ve left.

Yvette was on at The Studio, Royal Exchange from 6th-8th June.

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