EFR - Reviews of Labels

Labels

Wed 5th – Mon 31st August 2015

reviews

Fergus Morgan

at 14:19 on 16th Aug 2015

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Part lecture, part storytelling, part performance, Worklight Theatre’s Labels is one of the most topical productions at this year’s Fringe. Written and performed by Joe Sellman-Leava, it is an autobiographical account of his rich family history that flits from India to Devon, via Uganda, Cheltenham and more.

But this is more than a story; it is an extremely powerful examination of how we attach labels to each other, how we pigeonhole people based on their appearance and their background, and ultimately, how close modern British society is to the racism and self-preserving instincts of Enoch Powell.

Sellman-Leava is simply magnificent. His easy-going, endearingly polite, and gently witty exterior clearly masks an enormous emotional depth. This is the highly personal story of his family and their struggle with their own identity in the face of prejudice and it is told with great verve and sensitivity.

Throughout, Sellman-Leava carries a sizeable travelling case around the stage, within which are dozens of paper labels that he periodically sticks on himself and members of his audience throughout the performance. By the show’s end, Sellman-Leava is covered with a host of names, places, and insults – all of which he has been identified with at some point in his life: ‘New Boy’, ‘India’, ‘Brother’, and some more unsavoury ones.

Such a device is typical of the ingenuity that characterises Labels. Sellman-Leava has constructed a show that is engaging not just because of the story that it tells, but because of the way that it is told with innovative lighting, novel audience interaction techniques, simply yet effective costume changes.

The story of Sellman-Leava’s family is the springboard to which he launches into a deeper discussion of xenophobia and prejudice in contemporary Britain, which focusses particularly on debate surrounding ‘illegal’ immigration. Sellman-Leava rarely over-emphasises his arguments, but prefers instead to lightly touch upon some forceful conclusion, leaving a profound sentence dangling in the air or simply holding up some implicative message on a sheet of white paper.

Perhaps Label’s most impactful moments are when Sellman-Leava recites fragments of speeches from British history, holding up signs stating when they were delivered and by whom. From Enoch Powell’s River Of Blood speech, to Katie Hopkins recent comments comparing African migrants to cockroaches. Sellman-Leava’s lack of comment on these racist diatribes is more powerful than anything he could say. The audience is left to draw the inevitable conclusion: how little we have progressed in over half a century, and how pitiably we kid ourselves with delusions of equality.

Yet Labels’ message is not a defeatist one; it is one of hope. Sellman-Leava, partly due to his sincerity and partly to his obvious determination and pride, imparts a great sense of optimism. His family’s story is thoroughly absorbing, his delivery of it is commendable, and his ability to effectively engage his audience is superb. This is a show that demands to be heard, and deserves to be seen.

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Bethan Roberts

at 14:23 on 16th Aug 2015

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Labels is a one man show written and performed by Joe Sellman-Leava, which explores the way we label things and people, and particularly the relationship of labelling to prejudice and anti-immigration rhetoric. The show is, on one level, very personal as it tells the story of Sellman-Leava’s family and their history, his dad having had to flee Uganda when Idi Amin forced all those with Indian heritage to leave the country, and the prejudice he himself has faced growing up as a mixed race man in an intolerant society. However, Labels always relates the personal to the political, indicating how for immigrants and people of colour it is often difficult to have an existence protected from judgment and prejudice.

The piece opens with Sellman-Leava quoting a variety of public figures on the subject of immigration, encompassing former BNP leader Nick Griffin, Katie Hopkins’s infamous ‘cockroaches’ comments, and Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Sellman-Leava’s skill as an actor is apparent in the way he imitates each speaker capably without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter by lapsing too far into the parodic. He can do David Cameron’s Etonian soundbites, Farage’s plain-speaking-everyman persona, and the weird noises Ed Miliband makes between sentences. These quotations resurface throughout the play at carefully judged moments, indicating that oppression of minorities and immigrants exists on a spectrum, and asking whether letting immigrants drown is really any different to Idi Amin ordering mass shootings back in his father’s Uganda. “I want to know,” says Sellman-Leava, his words heavy with feeling, “why letting someone drown is better than letting someone in.”

In the shows exploration of the names assign people Sellman-Leava readily acknowledges his own tendency to categorise and to label. It’s easier, he admits, to write off racist comments as coming from ignorant or stupid people, when actually that’s just using another form of prejudice in the form of classism and ableism, and the really dangerous racists are the educated ones who can cloud their intolerance in eloquent language or hide it behind a bluff and buffoonish exterior.

Various labels form physical props used throughout the performance. Some are sticky labels stuck to the audience and to Sellman-Leava himself, and others form the unexpectedly large quantity of pieces of paper which emerge throughout the show. The choice of Labels for the show’s name highlights their inevitability in the wider world as well as this performance, but a distinction is drawn between the labels we force on others and the labels we choose for ourselves, like the surname of Sellman-Leava himself, created by his parents and belonging to only five individuals in the whole world: the performer’s immediate family.

Towards the close of Labels, numerous possible end points make the show feel longer than necessary, but it’s a funny, moving and thought-provoking piece which educates as it entertains. If you want to see a show that isn’t afraid to tackle the big issues, but does so with charm, wit and sensitivity, surely there couldn’t be a better choice this Fringe.

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