A Strange Loop London review: Magnificent queer Broadway sensation breaks all the rules

A gigantic, profound musical about being queer and Black in America, A Strange Loop breaks all the rules to create something truly mesmerising.

The show arrives at London’s Barbican with one hell of a backstory. Playwright Michael R Jackson spent more than a decade evolving the story from a simple monologue to an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. Its first New York run won a Pulitzer Prize, making A Strange Loop the first off-Broadway show and the first show by a Black author to be so honoured. Later, it won a Tony for best musical.

It’s a musical about a musical about a musical – and so on. Usher (Kyle Ramar Freeman, who transfers from Broadway), is a theatre usher at Broadway’s The Lion King. He’s fat, Black and gay, like the character in his musical, also called A Strange Loop, who’s also writing a musical called A Strange Loop.

Sounds complicated, but it’s not. The framing device is merely a way for Usher – and Jackson – to interrogate issues of identity, race, sexuality and self-hatred.

Throughout the show, Usher is surrounded by his Thoughts, manifestations of his internal monologue, who also act out the reality of his family life. His parents are Southern and Christian – his mother wants nothing more than for her baby to marry a nice girl, and spend his days writing Tyler Perry-flavoured gospel musicals. Usher, naturally, can think of nothing worse.

Seven figures on stage with lights shining a rainbow over them
L-R_ Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea (Thought 2), Yeukayi Ushe (Thought 3), Danny Bailey (Thought 5), Kyle Ramar FreemaL-R: The Thoughts with Usher – Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea, Yeukayi Ushe, Danny Bailey, Kyle Ramar Freeman, Eddie Elliott, Tendai Humphrey Sitima and Sharlene Hector. (Marc Brenner)an (Usher), Eddie Elliott (Thought 6), Tendai Humphrey Sitima Sharlene Hector (Marc Brenner)

The show explores, in unnerving detail, what many queer Black people experience: Usher is deemed, and deems himself, too Black and too fat to make it in the gay world. At the same time, he’s too gay to be truly embraced by his family.

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This constant rejection, the never-ending pressure to change half of his whole self, sends him to dark places.

But even in the depths of his despair, there is humour. A lot of it.

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Usher and his Thoughts crack jokes about anal sex, felching, having an “inner white girl” and Beyoncé. Often, it’s pretty close to the bone – there’s a lot of material about Usher’s family fearing HIV, culminating in the show’s most unexpected and spectacular number, which I won’t spoil here.

In the wrong hands, a lot of this could feel offensive, but Jackson’s script is grounded in truth: as in real life, healing and learning are found in making light of the darkest issues.

The script is punchy and complex, but it falls to Freeman to make sense of it all. Fortunately, he makes easy work of it. His vocals are flawless, and he inhabits the character effortlessly. The same goes for the Thoughts – Sharlene Hector, Nathan Armarkwei Laryea, Yeukayi Ushe, Tendai Humphrey Sitima, Danny Bailey and Eddie Elliott – who bring bitchy, spiky energy, punctuated with moments of pathos.

A Strange Loop is, without doubt, the show of the summer. Funny, moving and heart-breaking, it breaks all the rules of musical theatre to create something genuinely profound. It’ll no doubt leave many doing some soul-searching on the journey home.

A Strange Loop is at the Barbican until 9 September and tickets are available now from ticketmaster.co.uk.

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