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London Theater Review: ‘Leave to Remain’

In this synth-pop soap opera, a club-anthem score can't sustain the slim story of a gay couple's marital jitters.

With:
Arthea Ayeh, Rakie Ayola, Sandy Batchelor, Arun Blair-Mangat, Billy Cullum, Martin Fisher, Tyrone Huntley, Cornell S. John, Johanne Murdock, Marvell Fayose, Ndabane Emmanuel Makukula, Tudor Davies, Chrio Blake.

1 hour 50 minutes

“Leave to Remain” was almost a graphic novel. And a concept album. And a television series. Eventually Bloc Party’s frontman Kele Okereke and co-writer Matt Jones swung behind the idea of a stage musical, but they’ve ended up with a kind of synth-pop soap opera. Their story of a gay couple’s pre-wedding jitters is so two-dimensional, it still feels like a comic strip.

At heart, it’s a will-they-won’t-they tale, but “Leave to Remain” makes both the answer and the obstacles clear from the start. Having lost his visa as his company ships out, American financier Alex (Billy Cullum) proposes to his partner Obi (Tyrone Huntley) after only 10 months — his best shot at staying in London and in love. But committing so soon rears question-marks of its own and, as their respective families fly back into their lives, their histories and identities come to light.

Each revelation sends ripples through their relationship. Alex’s overbearing mother wraps her son with cotton wool, a marker of the extent of his ex-addict status, while Obi’s devout Nigerian father (Cornell S. John) still regards his son’s sexuality with disgust and disdain — a pointer to the psychological damage done over the years. In the truest of traditions, the couple was always heading for a night-before crisis: the teenage runaway bound to take off, the ex-addict destined to succumb to relapse. Hard to care where a story might be heading when you already know.

Harder still when the characters are scarcely more than their sexuality and their emotional scars, and predictability wouldn’t be such a problem were Jones’ dialogue not so dreadful. His plot skims, scene to scene, “and then, and then,” gliding from an establishing montage and rewinding through rites of passage. Structurally it’s square-footed, even if thematically there’s more than meets the eye: the story reflects ideas of permanence and change. It asks whether marriages and families need some form of escape, and whether addictions are lasting and prejudices entrenched. It just about justifies its Brexit-themed title, keying into questions of social progress and political unions.

Even so, it’s dull. Okereke’s songs instill an urban pulse, conveying the itchy restlessness of both marriage and metropolitan life with a melancholic edge. “Damien’s Seduction,” for example, doubles as the snaking siren song with which Alex’s best friend tries to lure him away and a lament for the loneliness of a squarely hedonistic life. Yet, as a score, the sound’s too monotonous; all club-style anthems built around repetitive chorus lines. Refreshing as it is to hear a musical with a genuinely contemporary sound, Okereke’s synth-pop style doesn’t suit storytelling.

It is, however, built for dancing, and Robbie Graham’s direction weaves movement through the action. One family dinner descends into glitching awkwardness and characters leap into the freedom of nights out, swirling through the haze of Anna Watson’s blue-pink lights. Too often, the staging trips into music video or concert staging — Alex’s relapse becomes a slack-limbed aerial routine — overloading so simplistic a story. Huntley and Cullum are both likeable enough to keep us on their side, but leave still seems preferable to remain.

London Theater Review: 'Leave to Remain'

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre, London; 559 seats; £42 top. Opened, reviewed Jan. 24, 2019. Running time: 1 HOUR 50 MIN.

Production: A Lyric Hammersmith production of a musical in one act by Kele Okereke and Matt Jones.

Creative: Directed by Robbie Graham; Design, Rebecca Brower; lighting, Anna Watson; sound, Mike Thacker for Orbital; music supervisor, Phil Cornwell.

Cast: Arthea Ayeh, Rakie Ayola, Sandy Batchelor, Arun Blair-Mangat, Billy Cullum, Martin Fisher, Tyrone Huntley, Cornell S. John, Johanne Murdock, Marvell Fayose, Ndabane Emmanuel Makukula, Tudor Davies, Chrio Blake.

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