Reclaiming hip hop

This Sadler's Wells show saves the genre from itself.

I now realise (what took me so long?) that the perfect medium for expressing despair, desire, joy, friendship and the feminist credo is undoubtedly hip hop. Nothing quite says I love you like a spot of locking and popping. Krumping is the new iambic pentameter! Such is the eye-opening evidence of Some Like It Hip Hop, currently playing at Sadler’s Wells.

Fittingly, given hip hop’s frisky bricoleur tendencies, dance company ZooNation have taken two existing classics of cross-dressing, Some Like It Hot and Twelfth Night, and parlayed these into something rich, strange and very street.

The bare bones of the story articulate an admittedly crude parable, teaching the kids that books are cool and misogyny ain’t (but then plotting wasn’t Shakespeare’s strong suit, either). We are transported - arguably not very far - to a land where books are burned, or banned, and women demeaned and subjugated. It’s Riyadh, with drum ‘n’ bass. To take on and take down this benighted, boys-own city state our two girl heroes Jo-Jo and Kerri must don Groucho Marx moustaches, and enter the citadel disguised as chaps.

In the show’s final “battle”, the regime’s goons busts some impressive moves but it’s a one nil victory as the girls and the wonks stick it to the patriarchy. It’s not made wholly clear how the girls link to the books, or the books link to the wellbeing of the state, but dance is a mode that laughs in the face of the non sequitur.

This is a show in which everything flips: bodies, beats, texts and genders. Inverting the Jack Lemmon-Tony Curtis axis is a stroke of genius. This time it’s the women’s turn to ogle the men (dressed, at one point, in cursory boxers for the night). The way the two performers (Lizzie Gough and Teneisha Bonner) ape a blokeish physicality is an utter joy. The brilliance of their forgeries is that they don’t just look like women pretending to be men. They look like women pretending to be men pretending to be men - exposing posturing masculinity in all its crotch-grabbing nullity.

Bonner is a fabulous dancer, and an even better comedian. As she mans up and gets her swag on, only the slightly wild and shifty eyes give away anxieties about being unmasked. And what real boy doesn’t have these same anxieties?

There are two love stories played out in Some Like It Hip Hop, one of which is between the only bookish guy in town (a charming Tommy Franzén) and Gough, as the cross-dressed Jo-Jo. The lovers perform a delightfully goofy his ‘n’ hers routine: a hip hop pas de deux. Franzén, in his dapper checks and swotty bow tie, dances with the nonchalant grace of an Astaire and a Chaplin. Who wouldn’t fall in love with him?  

Meanwhile the repressive Governor of the mini-kingdom (Duwayne Taylor: sultry, sulky) has demons of his own. In flashback mode, we watch his tyranny take root in the death of his beloved wife. During this vignette, the dancers’ movements start to judder and stutter; glitches appear in the scene, as if it were a video tape degraded in the replaying. It is up to the magnificent Kerri to redeem the bereaved despot, burned up by such memories.

The original score (by Josh Cohen and DJ Walde), which includes some terrific live singing, rips from jazz, funk, blues, rock and rap. Walde himself surfaces benignly in umpteen scenes, singing, chorusing, playing the guitar. Arguably no-one’s more ubiquitous, however, than the unseen Katie Prince, who’s director, writer, choreographer and lyricist. Her physical style is an ebullient and witty mash of moves, as she appropriates everything from cheesy-licious dancehall to acrobatic breakdance. It’s choreography that makes the rest of the West End look old. Her biggest move is the reclamation of hip hop itself, not to mention its vile “bros before hoes” canon. In this land-grab, it’s annexed as a feminist form. Prince’s genre-bender pulls hip hop away from narcissistic, belligerent machismo and re-imagines it as co-operative, romantic and feminine. Some teeny bopper elements in the stalls screamed for the virtuoso (male) dancers like they were rock gods - but time and again the narrative carefully reels them back from such fetishisation.

Marvellously, the audience could not have been - rare in theatreland - culturally more multi, or generationally more mixed (a few, surely, more at the hip op stage?).

Some Like It Hip Hop? Surely All Like It Hip Hop.

A scene from Some Like It Hip Hop (Photograph: Simon Prince)
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism