When I first heard that Kele Okereke of the British rock band Bloc Party had co-written a new theatre show, Leave to Remain, and it was about a gay couple contemplating marriage as one of them was having residency visa troubles, my first thoughts went along the lines of:
A) Oh, that’s an interesting career development for Okereke.
B) That sounds very topical. Immigration is big news everywhere right now, and the UK’s upcoming Brexit out of the EU is forcing even greater numbers to confirm their residency status here.
C) It sounds like it could be a bit… well, heavy.
I turned up at the Lyric Hammersmith in London not knowing quite what to expect. Would Okereke’s musical contributions to the show (co-written with Matt Jones) be an incidental soundtrack to a politics-heavy polemic? Okereke is not known for being the most commercial of songsmiths: Was it going to veer towards the avant garde?
Within the first five minutes, it becomes obvious that you should leave any preconceptions about the show at the front door.
Leave to Remain is a fast-paced, smart, engaging and authentic modern love story that many will relate to.
Obi (Tyrone Huntley) meets Alex (Billy Cullum) in the street. They date, fall in love, go clubbing together and swiftly move in with one another. And that’s literally just the first five minutes of this hyperkinetic production.
There’s just one looming problem to the men’s evolving romance. Alex is American and in the UK on a work visa. His company want to relocate him to Abu Dhabi.
Obi has a successful career in the UK and relocating to the Middle East – not known for being gay-friendly – would be impossible. To stay together in the UK, the only option appears to be marriage.
Despite both being unsure of the plan and dating for just a few months, Obi and Alex decide to wed. They initially arrange a low-key ceremony. But that’s before Alex’s folks in the US become involved and insist on flying over.
Obi feels obliged to also invite his parents, although – both first generation Nigerian migrants in London – they have not embraced the fact their son is gay.
Add to the mix the fact Alex is recovering from a substance abuse problem and that one of his gay friends is secretly in love with him, and the stage is set for a very modern, dilemma-filled comedy-drama.
Musically, Leave to Remain is a surprisingly traditional West End musical packed with electronically pulsing tunes from Okereke. The presence of a live guitarist at the back of the stage ensures the electronics never become too cold or clinical (the soundtrack is now available on streaming services).
‘For the music for this project I took cues from the records that my parents would play in our house when I was growing up,’ Okereke said last year. ‘West African high-life music, and I tried to combine those sounds with the electronic dance music I hear in clubs today.
‘It was important to me to make something that represented the meeting of two very different worlds.’
Jones (who has previously written scripts for Doctor Who and Stan Lee’s Lucky Man) and Okereke have created rounded, believable characters and their cast does them credit. Special mention must go to Tyrone Huntley (Obi), Cornell S. John as Obi’s disapproving father, and Johanne Murdock as Alex’s controlling mom.
Leave to Remain has its comic moments, such as the super awkward family dinner that the boys throw for both sets of parents (the moms discussing what posters their sons had on their walls as teenagers prompted particularly loud laughs). But at times it’s also deeply moving.
The scene when a younger Obi is rejected by his parents because of his sexuality is genuinely heartbreaking. Alex’s counterpoint are his own struggles with substance abuse. Nothing is black and white and all of these characters have their flaws. But then again, don’t we all?
Relationships, families and parental approval
Jones and Okereke clearly know their subject matter: Relationships, families and parental approval (Okereke is also of Nigerian descent and has spoken before of his own struggles to come out to his family).
With the help of director Robby Graham and amazing designer Rebecca Brower, they have created a fast-paced, hugely enjoyable modern musical that deserves to be seen.
I’ve not enjoyed a gay-themed romance on the London stage since Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing way back in 1993. Yes, it’s that good. Book tickets while you can. It deserves a far longer run.
Leave to Remain is at Lyric Hammersmith, King Street, Lyric Square, W6 0QL. Booking until 16 February.