FAME: A Review
On Monday, 11th March, I, a FAME virgin, experienced the most incredibly emotional, vibrant, busy and creative theatre experience of my life so far.
Although FAME is a story that follows the tasks and troubles of a group of teenagers, Nick Winston’s production goes far beyond the superficial struggles that we assume typical of youth to really grip the problems that run rife in societies across the world today. Even 40 years after the first productions of FAME were released for public viewing, audiences still see how the impact of drugs, the inequality in race relations; the significance of education, the transcendency of hardship in friendship and the exploration and discovery of sexuality are all central to living life as human beings.
The stage for this production was framed in multi-coloured LEDs. Shocking blues, reds, whites, yellows and greens established themselves as the guiding lights that would unravel the play. Using the stark contrast between dark and light, ending scenes with complete blackness, and starting scenes with vibrancy, the production made explicit its engagement with the concept of perception, both of good and bad and of visibility and knowledge. The scenes in which Carmen – who supposedly is going to ‘live forever’ – buys drugs and fights with her friends, were shadowed in darker, conspicuous lighting. From the off, there was the sense that her bulb would eventually be the one that blows. Use of light as reflective of character brought to front and centre stage the significance of reality both within and outside of the performance space. Whilst audiences know they are at a show, and are guests in a make-believe world, this production really did make that world as enticing but also as harshly real as possible.
This interpretation of FAME had a heavy focus on race, privilege and stereotypes. Tyrone’s character, as played by Jamal Kane Crawford, exhibits an insecurity and misunderstanding that is unravelled towards the end of the second half. The aggression towards Mica Paris’ character, Miss Sherman, the powerful, pushy yet protective English teacher, we discover, is a product of his inability to read. His temper and attitude are products of the fact his character is the child of poverty and abandonment. The only thing he knows how to do, and the only way through which he can express himself, is dance. Miss Sherman, however, places value not only on expression through art, but through basic knowledge of the world outside of art. She says to the privileged, and somewhat ignorant dance teacher, through a true musical belter that ‘artists are people too’. The discrepancy between the two views, and the fact that it is a black man who must shoulder the burden of both a stereotype and a misunderstanding, is proof of the play’s determination to break down and analyse conversations that are typically ignored in the real world. These conversations are about ignorance and perspective. The dance teacher, a privileged white woman, sees Tyrone’s potential solely in his capacity as a dancer, ignorant of the fact that his academic education has been neglected. Miss Sherman sees his capacity as a human being. In the diversity and the consequential range of cultural perspectives present in this production, Winston created a platform on which complex and controversial dialogues about race, gender, history and social politics could be and were performed.
Sexuality is something that, historically, has been problematic in theatre. With links to morality and censorship, its exploration was often considered too explicit and controversial to be performed. This production, however, throws concerns about taboos out of the window and instead depicts a vivid and playful exploration of teenage sexuality, tracing the discovery of pleasure, intensity of emotional development in relationships and the exploration of male mentality to sex especially. Adding not only an important dialogue about the nature of the act of sex but also normalising desire, the first half had sexual and sensual humour and enlightenment woven into its fabric. The character Joe, played by Albey Brookes, is a façade, a parody of himself. Audiences get the sense that he, whilst playing a version of himself, a boy obsessed with sex, is simply a teenager seeking comfort and happiness in a relationship with someone who he enjoys the company of. It wasn’t who I expected at all. (I love a good surprise!) He navigates his youth, as the play covers around 3 years, transitioning from an immaturity manifested in his treatment of sex and of women, to a man who treasures a relationship with a woman he knows beyond the physical attraction to her. His on-stage journey is a heartwarming and educational one, and really did unravel not only the emotional development that is a part of teenage growth but also played with the existence of an inherent human desire to be loved. It was, in simple terms, a rollercoaster, and I felt grateful to be along for the ride.
This production touched my heart. I felt the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the beautiful old hall of the Liverpool Empire. And for me, that is what theatre is all about: bringing the realities of contemporary life into a safe space, where they can be explored and understood by anyone who wants to be aware of or active in the dialogue that exists outside of the theatre. Winston left audiences questioning their own attitudes to race, sexuality, wealth and class, and identity and consequently considering how experience and circumstance is central to the way we define the things we see. It was fun, feel-good and fresh and if I could go every night this week, I sure would. If you can get yourself tickets for the Liverpool run or indeed any of the tour dates, you will definitely not be disappointed!