Theatre Review: The Legend of Mike Smith by Soweto Kinch.  The Studio, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Soweto Kinch (musician / performer)
Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood

The Legend of Mike Smith by Soweto Kinch
(The Studio, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Mon. 16th Sept 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)

A new studio theatre hosting a new jazz/hip-hop drama written and performed by Birmingham saxophonist Soweto Kinch. Protagonist Mike Smith is on an an episodic quest, featuring jazz improvisation, rap, contemporary dance and video installation. It’s a profound and often funny study of human motivation (or lack of it). It’s like a Medieval Morality Play where the soliloquies are rapped in alliterative wordplay; there’s a gentle recorded hip-hop accompaniment, enhanced live by bassist Nick Jurd and drummer Shane Forbes.

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Jurd and Forbes- both excellent- are visible throughout, flanking a gauzy screen that doubles as backdrop for video projections and a curtain for characters to climb through on to the small square stage. Mike Smith (Ricardo da Silva) is a slight figure creating arcane poetical raps; he’s in his own world in his room. The disembodied voice of a record company exec (minor characters are recorded voices) phones, asking him to convince the senior board to sign him. He has one night to prepare…the screen lights up with fire and Lord of the Rings-like fantasy figures. Kinch has drawn on Dante’s vision of the underworld, but Mike is guided by ‘a Gandalf-looking geezer’. A mystical golden microphone appears onscreen, amid (not always audible) booming voices- a Holy Grail and game show object of desire- a moment of comic bathos.

Soweto Kinch (musician / performer), Ricardo Da Silva (performer) and Tyrone Isaac – Stuart (performer)
Photo Credit: Graeme Braidwood

But Seven Deadly Sins lure Mike from his goal. Sloth takes the form of his alter ego (the taller, more robust-looking Tyrone Isaac-Stuart) who argues him out of getting fit and into getting stoned, with a certain amount of slapstick. As they channel-hop, they see images of a man surrounded by cars, money, bling and the green lights and smoke of Envy. Isaac-Stuart mimes Mike’s dissatisfaction brilliantly, turning the stage into a cage, with Kinch’s nervy behind-screen sax improv and machine-gun fire rap.

External forces conspire against Mike too- transport delays, racist police. They provoke his Wrath, and he walks through onscreen fire to an M-BASE style jazz funk piece from the trio. There’s a comic anti-climax as he furiously breaks his friend’s front door. One of the most moving scenes is where Mike dances his frustration, Martha Graham-style, to the sax trio, in a moonlit street.

Mike’s waylaid again in the mall as Gluttony and Lust take over. Mike ‘vomits’ designer logos on the floor before climbing hilariously over various audience members in pursuit of his lust, while Kinch raps about ‘X-rated exchanges’. Avarice emerges in the amusement arcade, as Mike rolls on the roulette wheel. We chanted, ‘Privatise the gains, socialise the losses’, in Kinch’s clever analogy between Monopoly and the recession. A black-suited figure in red stocking mask appears: a puppet master pulling Mike’s strings. In one of the most powerful scenes, beautiful and chilling, they dance a pas de deux till the strings are cut and Mike slumps. Kinch’s sax solo heightens the pathos. As Mike and alter egos walk home through faceless buildings, as if in a video game, the tension builds: they start to run and stumble as Forbes’ thrilling drum solo doubles the tempo. Pride finally takes over. ‘It’s my turn at the top- I’m somebody special’ says Mike, as Kinch leaps into the audience delivering comic freestyle rap insults to anyone who catches his notice. Cue more scary hellfire and gargoyle screen images, and a fine Ornette Coleman-like piece for Kinch and Isaac-Stuart on saxes, as Mike asks: ‘Which passions contain genuine treasure?’

He reaches the record company but the room is symbolically empty. What will Mike do with the golden mic? He returns to creating his poetical raps, and doing things his way. The three ‘Mikes’ rap on an upbeat note: ‘I recognise my mic’s a cutlass to stifle injustice…creativity means you can’t chain and limit me…breaking free of the sins caging me in.’ The vulnerable, solitary figure of Mike is back alone on stage for the final words: ‘It’s freedom time’.

It’s a spectacular piece of theatre, constantly engaging, drawing together ancient ideas of sin and their modern counterparts in social satire. Jonzi D and the team’s well-paced staging is thoroughly entertaining as well as thought-provoking- and the jazz is superb.

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