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Princess and the Hustler review at Bristol Old Vic – ‘heartfelt and timely’

Kudzai Sitima in The Princess and the Hustler at Bristol Old Vic. Photo: The Other Richard
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Set against the backdrop of the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, this homegrown play from Bristol playwright Chinonyerem Odimba is the second instalment (after Black Men Walking) in Eclipse Theatre’s Revolution Mix – a project to deliver new black British stories.

The Princess of the title is Phyllis James (Kudzai Sitima), a 10 year-old girl who dreams of winning the Weston-Super-Mare beauty pageant. It’s a dream which, relegated to a cupboard room lined with lush, unreal pink curtains in Simon Kenny’s set, the audience instantly recognises as a fantasy.

The Hustler is her estranged father Wendell (an effortlessly charming performance by Seun Shote, one minute sly and mischievous, the next boiling over with political indignation), who turns up uninvited on Christmas Day. A family drama plays out – can Wendell change his ways, and can Mavis, the strong single mother who has forgotten how to be happy (a fearsome, sympathetic Donna Berlin), forgive him?

All these characters have hopes and dreams which have been variously disappointed by broken promises – from each other and from the British government. The home they were promised turned out to be a battleground. While Odimba’s play is occasionally over-expository, repeating conversation points we’ve heard already, its huge heart wins out, and it feels depressingly timely in the wake of the Windrush scandal.

Ultimately, it posits the importance of solidarity, and Mavis’ assurance to Princess that she – like all black women – is beautiful, is all the more moving for being followed by a celebratory curtain call pageant of local women.

Playwright Chino Odimba: ‘We have to stop patronising young audiences’

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Heartfelt tribute to the Windrush generation, set during the Bristol Bus Boycott