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J’Ouvert review at Theatre503, London – ‘gorgeously authentic’

Sharla Smith, Annice Boparai and Sapphire Joy in Theatr503, London. Photo: Helen Murray
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The term “J’ouvert” comes from the French “jour ouvert” – literally, “day open” – a tradition that takes place at dawn at carnivals all over the world.

At 2017’s Notting Hill Carnival, the J’ouvert celebrations were different. The entire carnival felt different. This was because, less than three months earlier, in the small hours of the morning on June 14, a devastating fire ravaged Grenfell Tower, killing at least 72 of its inhabitants.

This is the backdrop to Yasmin Joseph’s lovingly written debut play. Grenfell is never mentioned by name but its painful legacy looms large. There’s a line in the play about dancing on bodies that weighs a ton.

Though Rebekah Murrell’s sensitively directed production includes a profoundly moving minute’s silence, this isn’t a piece specifically about Grenfell. It’s about the Notting Hill Carnival and the beauty of this wonderfully exuberant celebration of black culture. In particular it explores how women navigate this space.

Annice Boparai, Sapphire Joy and Sharla Smith play friends and carnival buddies Nisha, Jade and Nadine. Adorned in Sandra Falase’s beautiful costumes, the trio brilliantly embody their respective characters.

In a world of swipes, ticks, profiles and pixels, carnival is tactile. It’s flesh, skin, and movement. Carnival is body. In among all the daggering, dutty wining, and two-stepping, this combination too often proves dangerous for the women who wish to embrace the tradition and seek joy in the streets. Joseph and Murrell capture that perfectly.

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A gorgeously authentic carnival story from playwright Yasmin Joseph and actor-turned-director Rebekah Murrell