Portrait

Mon 10th – Sat 29th August 2015

reviews

Fergus Morgan

at 10:29 on 19th Aug 2015

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Portrait, a new piece of theatre devised and performed by Racheal Ofori, is an energetic one-woman show that clearly contains a powerful, pertinent and personal message. Yet it falls marginally short of being a truly impactful production due to its lack of originality and the inadvisable weighting of certain character above others.

Claiming to present ‘a frank, fun and provocative look at the trials and tribulations of modern life as seen through the eyes of a young black woman’, Portrait presents what is essentially a series of monologues, speeches, and poems in the guise of a variety of characters – an underprivileged high-schooler from London, an over-privileged Oxbridge applicant, a righteous American preacher, a Ghanaian migrant, and more.

The audience is intended to reflect upon its own preconceptions and stereotypes as these character’s storylines develop, but in reality, this effect is somewhat nullified by the fact that only one character’s story seems to progress in any meaningful sense, and even then, there is an element of cliché to her development; Candice, a teenager lifted straight out of Michelle Pfeiffer’s classroom in Dangerous Minds and plonked in a South London estate, is undergoing counselling and, as the show progresses, slowly succeeds in channelling her anger into positive action, managing to write some poetry along the way.

Of other characters, we catch only glimpses. The Oxbridge applicant, pushed on to academia by demanding parents and neurotically anxious about her chances of success, is left regrettably unexplored. Likewise, a Ghanaian woman arriving in London in search of a better education, is only revealed to us twice. These characters are interesting and thought-provoking, and it is a shame that the intellectual challenges they pose to the audience are fleeting and surface-deep.

Make no mistake, this is a stellar performance from a talented actor. Ofori has taken her own life experiences, combined them with perceptive observations, and, with the help of director Kate Hewitt, formed them into a vibrant, exhilarating hour-long show that comes from a deeply personal place. Her frequent bouts of fast-paced, punchy poetry are brilliantly constructed; her characterisation is strong – her command of accents is particularly impressive; and her dancing is rhythmic and enjoyable.

This is an engaging piece of theatre. Ofori’s writing is realistic, humourous, and sharp. Her performance is honed, professional and slick. But Portrait is perhaps not as genuinely stimulating, nor as relevant to Fringe audiences, as it outwardly seems to be. The audience is entertained, but not changed.

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Isabella Goldstein

at 11:30 on 19th Aug 2015

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Perceptive, down-to-earth and refreshingly candid, Portrait encapsulates the difficult and often troubling social reality of life as a young black woman in the 21st century. The show is a brilliant debut for writer and solo performer Rachel Ofori. A multi-faceted performer, her immense skill as a dancer and an actress is rivalled only by the nuances of her clever rhyming couplets.

Lighting and sound queues are used simply and effectively to help Ofori transform from character to character in the blink of an eye. Often these characters intersect with one another in unexpected and interesting ways - ingenius links which are moreover brought to life and developed within Ofori’s long, lyrical monologues.

There is an amazing subtlety to the language in this play; at once serious and complex and light-hearted and rhythmic. This is spoken word theatre at its most sophisticated.

One of the things that the show does best is to expose the cultural gulf that exists between British and ethnic minority communities, even amongst individuals who have grown up in the UK. Teenager Candice – by far my favourite of Ofori’s women – perfectly epitomised the difficulties of bridging this gap. Candice’s speech, a host of brilliant one liners, “political correctness? More like polite condescension,” ultimately amounts to a flawlessly delivered satirisation of our attempts to navigate multiculturalism.

With far more meaningful and astute things to say than her counsellor - the irony of Candice’s referral to college counselling because of her “aimlessness” and “anger with the world” is not lost on the audience.

Also very particularly perceptive is the dieting bridesmaid. Aware that she is consumed with herself yet unable to break away from society’s “unobtainable feminine ideal,” she encapsulates image culture as cycle of perpetual guilt and expectation.

Ofori’s series of portraits of British Black Women amount to a pithy social critique of cultural stereotypes. However, too often Ofori proves her point about our misled preconceptions, yet fails to develop them into anything more profound – a feat clearly not beyond her skills as a writer.

Moreover, the performance would potentially have benefited from a smaller amount of greater developed characters. The number of on-stage appearances devoted to each character differed greatly, which for me damaged the performance’s equilibrium – I found myself wishing I could see less of some and more of others.

Notwithstanding, this is a performance which makes some fearlessly critical and subtle points about race, gender and politics without seeming preachy, a difficult achievement.

Portrait is the whole package: dance, poetry and comedy peppered with hard-hitting drama. Ofori is a rising star whose work is enjoyable, imaginative and impressively original - definitely one to watch.

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