Review: I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Feelings invade me and leave me in shock”

Part of the Blaze festival and renewing the co-producing relationship between Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Barbican, I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky is playing at the East London theatre for a full fortnight. Composed by John Adams and libretto by June Jordan, the title of the play is taken from a quote by a survivor of the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles. The entirely sung-through musical play follows seven young Americans from different ethnicities and backgrounds, struggling to deal with the challenges urban life is throwing them, especially around race, sexuality and immigration.

Former gang leader Dewain is arrested for stealing two bottles of beer in a rush to meet his girlfriend, Consuelo, an illegal El Salvadorean immigrant, by rookie policeman Mike. The incident is caught on tape by Tiffany, an ambitious tv reporter and then used by Vietnamese-American lawyer Rick to plead for Dewain’s innocence. Consuelo is also being counselled on family planning issues by Leila, but she is having to deal with the attentions of local preacher David. Then, the earthquake hits and all the characters have to deal with the repercussions, emotional and physical, on their lives as priorities are significantly reassessed.

To be honest, I wasn’t a fan. It is just so firmly rooted in ‘90s LA that I found it hard to engage with and despite the fact there’s only 7 characters, there’s limited interaction between them, for instance, I think David only actually has scenes with Leila. Matters aren’t helped by the staging choice to have all characters onstage all the time, observing the scenes but not participating in any meaningful way. There also seemed to be a bit of a chip-on-the-shoulder approach from the book. We’re asked to accept that Dewain’s ‘crime’ is really just a cultural thing, whatever his two previous convictions were for is conveniently not mentioned. And ultimately, it doesn’t help that these are all quite self-involved people: even after the great catastrophe, there’s no sense of community coming together, everyone is just involved in their own particular business: a dramatic necessity I’m sure but not one which endeared me to these people.

It also doesn’t help that musically it is really quite challenging. There’s a live band but the sound is synthesised so that it sounds very much of the ‘90s (I swear there were bits lifted wholesale from the soundtrack to Melrose Place!) and stylistically, it incorporates a vast number of influences, gospel, rnb, jazz, rock, even straight-up pop and sets them to a challenging, minimalist score which initially seemed at odds with the singing. I got used to it, rather than coming to love it. And there’s an awful lot of repetition of lyrics which drove me mad, the condom/movie song made me never want to hear either word ever again.

Performance-wise, there were no weak links throughout the whole ensemble though which was quite impressive given how challenging the material was. Leon Lopez is such a natural easy performer, his swaggering, loose-limbed Dewain drew the eye, but Cynthia Erivo was also vocally superb as the sparky Leila. Stewart Charlesworth, recently in the all-male Pirates, probably had the most thankless role as the bigoted, closeted cop Mike but even he managed to find something human in there in the soul-searching second half.

The show attempts to portray the realities of a multicultural society, but by reducing the role of the white characters to simple villains and making virtual saints out of those from ethnic backgrounds, it has little of value to add to the dialogue, the sentiment just feels wrong. Musically it just wasn’t my cup of tea and I found it lyrically trite and unsophisticated, though others may enjoy it and it is certainly well performed. So there is definitely something to appreciate here, just not its divisive message.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval, in preview)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 17th July
Note: there’s some use of strobe lighting in the second act

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