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An Octoroon review at Orange Tree Theatre, London – ‘madcap and daring’

Ken Nwosu and Kevin Trainor in An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard Ken Nwosu and Kevin Trainor in An Octoroon at the Orange Tree Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard
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An Octoroon is America’s Red Velvet. Sort of. Like Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ OBIE-winning 2014 work finds a black presence in 19th-century theatre – in an 1859 Dion Boucicault melodrama called The Octoroon – and mines it for all its worth. Unlike Red Velvet, though, An Octoroon is totally, totally bonkers.

It is essentially an extended riff on Boucicault’s play, retelling its story of financial mismanagement and forbidden love on a Louisiana cotton plantation within a teetering meta-theatrical framework. Jacobs-Jenkins himself appears as a character, as does Boucicault. White actors wear blackface, black actors wear whiteface, and a supersized rabbit randomly tap-dances across the stage.

Ned Bennett’s production – the piece’s European premiere – realises the madcap mania of Jacob-Jenkins’ text well. His overacting cast – led by the furiously multi-roling Ken Nwosu – might miss the play’s rich vein of absurdist humour, but they certainly capture its hectic perversity, aided by Georgia Lowe’s vaudevillian design, Elliot Griggs’ virtuosic lighting, and Theo Vidgen’s cinematic score.

An Octoroon is a play that refuses to kowtow to the audience’s preconceptions, that dances with stereotypes and teases relentlessly with sly race politics. At times, this playfulness can lapse into gimmick, and one wishes Jacobs-Jenkins would strip away the artifice and make a simple, unobscured point. But that denial is all part of the fun in this daringly deconstructive rollercoaster.

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A satisfyingly madcap European premiere for Brenden Jacobs-Jenkins' daring play