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Call Mr Robeson, Tristan Bates Theatre – Review

Written and performed by Tayo Aluko
Directed by Olusola Oyeleye

★★★★

Pros: This is an interesting and important story told as an engaging and thought-provoking reminiscence. Aluko’s performance is impressively heartfelt and dynamic – I feel I have a real sense of this incredible man.

Cons: There are few – the timeline does jump about a bit, which confused me at times.

Our Verdict: This is an emotionally charged, insightful monodrama of a lesser known civil rights activist. Wonderfully performed, it leaves you with plenty to think about when you leave the theatre.

Courtesy of Tristan Bates

I was completely unaware of Paul Robeson’s story before I took my seat at the Tristan Bates. It turns out after studying law he went on to be a successful singer and actor in the 1930s and his career spanned the decades up until his death in 1976. During this time he became heavily entrenched and outspoken in the civil rights movement, travelled the world and expressed admiration for the Soviet state and socialist ideology. He used his music, fame and stage presence to spread his message throughout the world. This led to him being investigated by the CIA, his passport being cancelled, his career plummeting and his health suffering. He was called before several Government committees to recant his position, which he refused to do, staying true to the fight against prejudice and inequality.

It is a very involved story spanning many years and this production very cleverly focuses on the man himself. It is a reminiscent one-hander, that takes us through this incredible life story through the eyes of the protagonist. It is wonderfully written and narrated – Aluko’s performance is dotted with humour, sadness, strength and anger in balanced and informative measure. There is a real understanding of the man behind the story, and Aluko performs poignant and relevant lyrics of some of Robeson’s greatest songs, bringing depth and soul to the performance. He has a wonderful speaking and singing voice and a dynamic presentation – he is not afraid to give everything to the credibility of the emotion and defiance that is so central to this character. I could have watched him all night.

The stage direction is commendable as it makes full use of the small space to bring energy and relevance to the tale. I loved the set design by Phil Newman – simple yet intricately representing the different influences on his life, Robeson’s character rummages through memorabilia for photographs and documents to illustrate and accentuate. The lighting was also essential and excellent in conveying changes in time and place thanks to the creativity of Gareth Starkey. I should also applaud the piano accompaniment by Michael Conliffe as along with playing the spiritual songs with grace, he also contributes enormously to the contrast and mood with the incidental music. There is a real creative strength behind this production.

After the show during a question and answer opportunity with Aluko, Oyeleye and Newman, there was discussion about how relevant Robeson’s views are for us to day. One thing that stuck with me was the fact he used his intelligence, talent and fame to try to educate and unite the world in equality not just for different races but for different classes also. I was left thinking about famous people in my lifetime that had done anything similar (Princess Diana? Bandaid?). Where are such celebrities today – those that have the passion and voice to change the world regardless of the risk to their career. I drew a blank and this is why Paul Robeson’s story is so important. This production is an excellent introduction and I urge you to see it.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Call Mr Robeson runs at The Tristan Bates until 26th October 2013. Box office 020 7240 6283 or book on line at http://www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk/call_mr_roseson.asp

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