“I have to be a politician, who ‘happens’ to be black. Not a black man who ‘happens’ to be a politician”
Within the first ten minutes, Juliet Gilkes Romero’s Upper Cut has gone through the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, race riots, and stop and search to name just a few of the hot button topics around race in this country and this is unfortunately symptomatic of a play that is underpinned by a huge amount of research yet also overladen by it. Her tale tracks the divergent careers of two black British politicians over the last 25 years – Michael rising from militant beginnings to the deputy leadership, Karen unable to reconcile her zeal with the strictures of an institutionally racist political system.
Difficulties come from all sides though. Its structural tricksiness – the story is told in reverse – has no dramatic imperative, politicians shifting position throughout their career is hardly novel and even the contrasting directions of Karen and Michael adds little interest. And the uneven spacing of the scenes – the first five bound from November 2012 to June 1987 whilst the next five crawl through to September 1986 – has a deathly impact on the pace of the play’s later stages.
Whilst Andrew Scarborough has meat to chew on with the northern practicality of spin-doctor Barry that remains pretty constant as he tries to deal with the contentious issue of all-black selection lists that percolates throughout, Akemnji Ndifornyen becomes increasingly less convincing as the radicalised student he once was emerges, he’s much more convincing Deputy Leader whose very mantra is compromise. Emma Dennis-Edwards as Karen feels awkward no matter what year it is though, an unease that never really settles.
She’s not helped by artlessly constructed dialogue that utterly fails to convert the playwright’s considerable research into anything resembling human conversation. Gilkes Romero relentlessly uses her dramatis personae as mouthpieces for varying positions and pays seemingly little regard for conventional notions of character – that we’re meant to engage with something of a love triangle is thus highly implausible given the lack of recognisable human emotion.
Which ultimately feels like a real shame, the potential in here for an insightful look into the recent history of the politics of diversity is huge and undoubtedly unfortunately timely. With a general election just around the corner and just over 4% of current MPs being non-white, and the recently announced Oscar nods failing to cite a single nominee who wasn’t white, it is clear that whether in politics or culture, our society is failing to get to grips with the singular question of race. Sadly though, this isn’t the play to illuminate why.