It’s hard not to get excited about the idea of this new musical, a gay love story created by Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke with writer Matt Jones, and starring the great Tyrone Huntley. With those ingredients, Leave to Remain should have been amazing. But, rather heartbreakingly, that’s not the case.
Huntley plays Obi and Billy Cullum plays his boyfriend Alex. a recovering addict. When Obi is kicked out of home by his dad, they decide to marry for visa purposes, but also for love.
Robby Graham’s production is undermined by its busy and clumsy direction, including really basic issues with movement: there’s lots of hammy slow-mo, people pretending to be in cars and about three too many rave scenes. The story and dialogue are also awash with cliches.
While it’s thrilling to hear Okereke’s buzzing fusion of dance hall and EDM in a musical – more of that, please – the songs themselves get a bit samey after the umpteenth introspective number. Except for a few snatches of really rich, lush vocal harmony, they sound too alike and are lyrically kind of bland. Also they’re pretty much all written as asides, inner monologues set to music. Nor, crucially, do they add anything to the story that the script isn’t already doing.
Tantalisingly there are moments of great power and depth in Leave to Remain, most of which feature Obi’s British-Nigerian family (including the wonderful Rakie Ayola who should be cast in everything) clashing cultures with Alex’s overbearing American parents.
One strand of the story explores how both Alex and Obi think the other has it better, and that gives the show some heft. Huntley is one of those actors who becomes more and more exciting with each new role he takes and he’s excellent as ever here as the emotionally closed-off Obi. He also gets to show off his incredible voice (in fact he’s the only one who gets a solo for the first hour).
There’s one properly devastating moment. After Obi has been kicked out of home by his dad, he falls apart on a park bench, and his sister, played by Aretha Ayeh, reassures him, singing “hold tight, you’re safe tonight”. Ayeh manages to be a hugely compelling presence in a relatively small part. But the show as a whole feels weirdly old-fashioned, both in terms of its unimaginative theatricality and in the way it’s written.
On one hand, it’s fantastic that a gay love story can feel this predictable and passé – it shows how far society’s come – but it would also be nice to see the conversation, and the theatrical frame in which it’s housed, moving forwards a bit.