Pros: Miguel Hernando Torres Umba gives a brave and open performance, striking just the right tone throughout.
Cons: Despite its openness, the performance is not as assured as it might be. The show also lags in places, taking too long to move forward with the content.
Miguel Hernando Torres Umba’s Stardust features as part of CASA Latin American Theatre Festival, which this year is celebrating its 10th Anniversary with eight weeks of performance at London’s Arcola Theatre and Southwark Playhouse. Stardust takes place at the latter, where, despite its late start time, the house was packed.
The show is at times very broad, and at others deeply personal, and takes an unblinking look at the catastrophic impact that cocaine’s global recreational use has on Umba’s native Colombia. While the personal ill-effects of cocaine usage are widely known, it feels as though the hazy public consciousness about the brutal realities of cocaine’s production and distribution has also begun to sharpen over the last decade. Indeed, back in 2005 Sir Ian Blair – then-Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – described a ‘trail of blood’ leading from a line of cocaine taken in the UK back to Colombia; 80% of cocaine taken in the UK originated in the South American nation. Meanwhile, the drug and the gang culture surrounding it is glamorised perhaps more than ever in shows like Narcos. Umba literally takes aim at this in Stardust, repeating drily the phrase “Thank you, Netflix!”.
While the above makes for pretty grim show material, with Stardust Miguel Hernando Torres Umba does much more than simply deliver a depressing lecture. The performer uses different foils to present the stark realities of the problem, becoming a facile game-show host (crying “Ok everyone, all together now: say ‘cocaine!’”), then later a South American Tony Montana blasting an automatic Colt AR-15 (the gun from Scarface – I looked it up) around the stage. The most affecting parts of the show are when Umba is himself onstage, talking frankly with his audience and delivering personal experiences from his own life, and those of his friends.
Umba’s performance is rough around the edges, but this is made up for by its openness, comic timing, and physical prowess. However, the promise in the programme notes of a “visually stunning physical theatre performance” isn’t quite realised. The pacing felt off at times, often during the sequences combining live movement with projection, and there were a few occasions when Stardust seemed to have reached a natural conclusion only to push on; this feeling was not helped by the stifling heat of the Southwark Playhouse’s auditorium (though whether this was a deliberate attempt to recreate an atmosphere of the Colombian rainforest I couldn’t say).
Umba articulates this huge subject matter in a way which can leave an audience in no doubt of the darkness underpinning it. What’s most impressive is that in Stardust these shocking realities are delivered with a humour which avoids crassness, informing his audience without patronising them. Throughout Stardust, a single line of cocaine sits on a mirror onstage, and Miguel at times literally dancing around it, as he considers whether to snort it. The palpable excitement among the audience at the beginning of the play turns to revulsion by the end – one audience member was even compelled to yell out “Don’t do it, Miguel!”. After Stardust, you’d certainly be hard-pushed to find anyone in the audience who would.
Writer and Director: Miguel Hernando Torres Umba
Producer: Blackboard Theatre & CASA Festival
Booking until: 14th October 2017
Box office: 020 7407 0234
Booking link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/casa-uk-week/stardust/#booking (currently sold out)