When I first heard about Kele Okereke’s first play, Leave to Remain, it was described as a ‘Brexit musical.’ The phrasing did not inspire much confidence; it suggested a Cambridge Footlights fever dream, a Boris Johnson character doing a rap about the WTO. As a long-term fan of Kele Okereke’s music (in indie band Bloc Party and as a solo artist), I was curious to see how his songwriting would translate to the stage. And as someone who would like to see a legally enforceable moratorium on discussing Brexit – be that in the pub or through the medium of song – I was worried I might hate it. But at no point does anyone break down EU trade tariffs real simple; there’s no choreography poking gentle fun at Theresa May. Thank God.
In fact it would be difficult to overstate extent to which Leave to Remain is not about Brexit, a word uttered precisely once during the one hour and 50-minute performance. At the post-performance Q&A I attended, the panel even groaned at the mention of it. When Kele Okereke and co-writer Matt Jones conceived the play, a full seven years ago, the idea was to tell the story of ‘two gay men who wanted to get married, but one of them isn’t sure’. It marks a return to two themes which have defined Okereke’s career, both in Bloc Party and as a solo artist: intimacy and anxiety. It's true that he has attempted state-of-the-nation commentary before, most notably on A Weekend in The City, with its songs about institutional racism, tabloid hysteria and knife crime, but that’s not really what’s going on here – and, in fairness, the play never really billed itself as such. I suppose ‘Brexit musical’ just makes for a snappier headline, satisfying a national compulsion to talk about the subject to the exclusion of anything else.
Really, the thrust of the play is in the relationship between the two protagonists: Alex (Billy Cullum), a white American working in the UK and recovering addict, who risks losing his visa when the company he works for relocates, and Obi (Tyrone Huntley), a British man of Nigerian descent, still traumatised by the familial homophobia he experienced as an adolescent. It is also very much about the interactions of their wildly different families as they are forced to meet ahead of the wedding: think Meet the Fockers set in a converted warehouse in Shoreditch. As the day approaches, secrets from Alex and Obi’s past begin to resurface, placing a strain on their relationship that threatens to derail it entirely.
The play opens with an exuberant montage of Alex and Obi meeting, falling in love and moving in together, set to “Obi and Alex Theme." It's a song that, like much of the score, combines traditional Nigerian vocals with modern electronic music (Okereke is releasing the soundtrack as a record, too). This slightly implausible meet-cute (in the age of Tinder, how many people fall in love after bumping into each other in the rain?) segues into “Not the Drugs Talking”, the soundtrack’s lead single – a discordant, fast-tempo dance track that wouldn’t be out of place on Bloc Party album’s Intimacy or A Weekend in The City. As this plays, Alex and Ubi, along with two of their friends, take drugs at a nightclub. The bassline sounds great in a vast theatre and the strips of flashing red lights create some intensity, but I have never seen a club scene rendered convincingly on stage and this was no exception. No matter how good the music, it’s hard to capture a club’s frenetic, sloppy energy with choreographed dancing.
The choreography as a whole, though, is subtle and naturalistic – perhaps because many of the cast aren't trained dancers. Similarly, the vocals throughout sound nicely understated; there is none of the gurning, tits-and-teeth inanity of the more unfair stereotypes of musical theatre. It really is a musical, though, to an extent which surprised me, and often veers into cheesiness: a scene in which a young Obi is menaced by hoodie-wearing yobbos immediately loses all tension when they burst into song. Although this is obviously a feature of musical theatre itself, the form occasionally sits uneasily with the social realism of the content.
One of the greatest strengths of Leave to Remain is its excellent supporting cast. Rakie Ayola gives a dignified and humorous performance as Obi’s mum. Johanne Murdock is great too, playing Alex’s mum with a warm but overbearing brittleness reminiscent of a Tennessee Williams matriarch. The strength of the ensemble cast is shown in an excruciatingly awkward, but funny, dinner party scene, in which the two sets of parents meet for the first time (with degrees of reluctance). Over a rather odd and abrasive little electro tune, “To Family”, the guests dance while seated at the table, mostly with their shoulders and necks, and air their grievances about each other in unheard asides. A man at the Q&A singled this scene out for particular praise (in more of a comment than a question), comparing it to a Mozart libretto — I don’t know enough about opera to substantiate this claim but I liked it a lot.
Rather than making a grand statement about Brexit Britain, the play is at its strongest in its depiction of both familial homophobia and addiction. The relationship between Obi and his parents is convincing and often poignant – they don’t love Obi any less for his homosexuality but nor can they accept it entirely. This dynamic is partly portrayed through a flashback to Obi’s teenage years, set to “Shame”, which is one of the more memorable songs on the score. Lyrics such as: "how do you sleep at night / when all is said and done I wasn’t the right kind of boy for you" add a sharp and accusatory edge. Throughout the play, Obi’s parents journey towards acceptance along a difficult path and ambiguous enough to avoid offering too easy a resolution. Alex’s addiction, meanwhile, is treated with similar subtlety and, without wanting to give to much away, his falling off the wagon at a pivotal moment in the story made me wince – it succeeds in capturing the way in which addiction compels people to act in ways wildly against their own interests.
If you go into Leave to Remain expecting searing political commentary, you might be disappointed. The two protagonists' repeatedly stated wealth (we’re made to understand their Shoreditch warehouse is really nice) means that there is never a question of them not being able to stay together, provided they want to. This perhaps makes for a more interesting personal dilemma but, with the state of immigration law in the UK, it’s actually a fortunate position to be in. Despite being the driving force behind the story, the VISA situation is treated as an inconvenience at best — the state, its callous bureaucracy, never feels like a threat. Ultimately, it handles the interpersonal better than the political, offering an interesting perspective on modern intimacy, the possibilities and limitations of gay marriage, along with a collection of vibrant music and interesting choreography. If you like Kele Okereke,, I think you’d enjoy it. If you don't, or if you're simply desperate for a satirical look at British politics, then hold tight – the Edinburgh fringe is a mere seven months away.
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