A Strange Loop – The Barbican – Review

A funny, filthy, messy, musical masterpiece

Actor in usher uniform stands in front of a company of actors in A Strange Loop at The Barbican London June 2023
A Strange Loop at The Barbican. Photo: Marc Brenner

A Strange Loop is a fascinating scientific theory about how the brain works, and the musical by Michael R Jackson that it has inspired is just as interesting. Before I tell you about my evening inside the brain of a fat queer black theatre usher (his words, not mine), I should warn you that it’s theatre far more experimental than you might expect from a Tony Award winning Best Musical, and quite possibly the filthiest play currently on a London stage. If you can handle both those elements, you might quite enjoy it. I know I did, but not as much as I hoped.

The main character in A Strange Loop is Usher, who is an usher in a Broadway theatre, where The Lion King is performing. He is played in this transfer to The Barbican by Kyle Ramar Freeman who was in the Broadway production. He’s on stage the whole time and it’s a phenomenal singing and acting performance full of pathos.
Usher, a sweet, vulnerable,  self-loathing young man is trying to write a play. As he does so, he’s assailed by various thoughts, played by six actors. They might be memories or fears or desires, but the key point is, they’re all in his head telling him, what he might write about or, more likely, what he shouldn’t write about, which is the truth about what goes on in his brain.
Although early on, Usher says he is writing a play about an usher writing a play about an usher writing a play and so on, this is more by way of an analogy for what happens. What we see is a series of trips into Usher’s brain. At the end of each episode, he may have a new idea about what he should write, but it is always the same Usher.
This fits Douglas Hofstadter‘s theory of A Strange Loop, which describes a creative thought process that apparently develops within the brain but ends up in the same place. The way our brains tackle the question ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ is this concept at its simplest.
The book by Michael R Jackson builds a whole dazzling structure based on Mr Hofstadter’s observation. It is verging on a masterpiece and a worthy winner of the Pulitzer Prize.  Clearly a talented man, he also wrote the music and lyrics. The music is pleasant, fairly straightforward pop. The lyrics can be a bit clunky at times but they’re amusing, touching and often very rude including frequent references to anal sex, albeit using a more coarse expression.
A Strange Loop at The Barbican. Photo: Marc Brenner

There is a lot of comedy. Usher has some difficult conversations with his parents about the ‘sin’ of being gay, the punishment that is AIDS, and how he should write a more popular kind of play – a gospel play.  It is also amusing, given where he works, that, in his mind, his mother refers to his father as Mufasa. On one occasion, a handsome stranger shows an interest in him and appears to be attracted to him but then turns out to be a figment of his imagination.

Some of the things going on in his brain are either not funny or have a sharp edge to the humour. His self-loathing manifests itself in a sense of inferiority, particularly to white people. So we have a fairly amusing scene in which he is rejected by everybody on a dating app because of his small penis, and a highly distressing scene in which he is sexually and racially abused by a gay white man.
I was prepared to go along with this because it was the truth about what was in his brain, and his thoughts are key to his character. Add to which, the musical is written and acted by black people, but I was still left feeling extremely uncomfortable at the expressions of racism and homophobia.

Expensive vacuous programme

I do take issue with a feature in the programme that said ‘the show’s language wouldn’t sit comfortably with your maiden aunt.’ It’s the kind of sexist expression that most people binned years ago. By the way, that is the only feature in an £8 programme with no song list and no colour photos of the show. A feature on Strange Loop theory would have been useful, as would one on Tyler Perry.
Because a further problem I had with this musical was that it is rooted in Black American culture. There were numerous ironic references to Tyler Perry, as someone to aspire to. Now I know him as a film actor, but I had no idea that he is a hugely successful producer of TV sitcoms and films aimed at Black people.
When Usher is told ‘Tyler Perry writes real life’, the sarcastically responds in the song of that title:
He writes stories ’bout fat, black women with weaves
Finding love and redemption
With muscle-bound black men who own their own business
And truly love the Lord.
I think there were probably a few other perspectives on life which Black Americans might share but which I, as a White Brit, felt excluded from. I accept that’s my problem, not the show’s. Usher rejects his parents’ plea to him to write an ‘intersectional’ play, in other words, one that will cover ground where Black and White audiences’ interests intersect. I take it Mr Jackson chooses not to compromise either.
Stephen Brackett again directs as he did on Broadway, and Raja Feather Kelly once again supplies the choreography. The result is a slick, pacey 100 minutes. The set by Arnulfo Maldonado is deceptively simple. It’s a fairly bare stage with door frames from which characters emerge and disappear. At first, I wondered if it was intended for a smaller more intimate stage, then, well into what might have been the second act had there been an interval, there is a transformation which is wondrous. I don’t want to say too much about it but I gather it will mean even more if you are familiar with Tyler Perry’s oeuvre.
Apart from the brilliant American import Kyle Ramar Freeman, the rest of the cast are, I think, British but carry their parts convincingly. Nathan Armarkwei- Laryea, Danny Bailey, Eddie Elliott, Sharlene Hector, Tendai Humphrey Sitima and Yeukayi Ushe are all very good actor-singers.
So, A Strange Loop is quite shocking at times, and more than a little confusing, but plenty of nice tunes, a good deal of laughter and a fascinating deep dive into how the creative brain works.
A Strange Loop can been seen at The Barbican until 9 September 2023.
Paul paid for his ticket.