Labels – Theatre Royal Stratford East Until 30th April then Touring
Guest Review by Liz Dyer
I remember watching a 15-minute excerpt from Joe Sellman-Leava’s solo show Labels at a scratch night at Morley College about a year ago. In an evening full of talent, the piece stood out for its blend of personal anecdote, self-deprecating humour and a quietly simmering anger, all presented by an engaging, charismatic performer.
Worklight Theatre’s third full-length show, directed by Katharina Reinthaller, has since toured to Edinburgh and Australia, collecting several awards along the way, and developed into a powerful and highly emotive work. Taking as a starting point Joe’s own family history – his dad’s Indian, but was born in Uganda and moved to Britain as a child, and his mum’s English – it’s an entertaining, enlightening and at times enraging examination of the labels put on people every day because of where they come from.
Through some eerily accurate impressions of everyone from Nigel Farage and Idi Amin to Katie Hopkins and David Cameron, and his own family’s experiences of prejudice, Joe invites us to question the reasons behind it – fear, curiosity, ignorance, a need to feel superior… or all of the above? And in an increasingly hysterical world where being politically incorrect is not only accepted but actually celebrated, the show becomes a small but powerful voice of common sense in the midst of the madness.
What’s particularly compelling about Labels is its honesty – and not just about the bad stuff. Joe’s quite willing to laugh at himself, to make affectionate fun of his family, and to admit to having his own prejudices (though I have to agree with him about people who chew loudly). With an appealing, diffident style, he holds our attention with ease, unafraid to make direct eye contact or interact with audience members. And he doesn’t try to hide his anger over the issues he’s discussing, whether it’s someone mocking his dad with a comedy Indian accent or society’s attitude towards refugees. This quiet but intense rage is infectious, and the show’s punctuated regularly by audible gasps and vigorous nodding from the audience. Some of the anecdotes are so shocking they tip us back into the realm of comedy – like the (real) Tinder conversation that begins, ‘Where are you from? You look foreign…’
Labels will make you laugh, a lot – at Joe’s unashamedly bad jokes, his Mum’s love for Poldark, his brilliantly gormless impression of Ed Miliband… But far more importantly, the show puts a human face behind the attitudes we’ve grown used to hearing all around us every day. In just one hour, we grow to care about the Sellman-Leavas – so why wouldn’t we care about other families, some of whom are in an infinitely more desperate situation?
The truth is we all label people, for all kinds of reasons. This show has something to say to everyone, no matter our political leaning or racial background, and challenges us to re-examine both our own prejudices and those of society. Labels is a courageous, powerful piece of writing, which deserves to be seen, heard and talked about by as wide an audience as possible.