Written by Matt Jones and Kele Okereke. Directed by Robby Graham.
A modern love story between an interracial, gay couple set in contemporary London. Obi and Alex decide to get married when American Alex’s job is relocated to Abu Dhabi and he needs a visa to stay in the UK. But getting married means inviting the parents, and that unleashes the partners’ difficult pasts.
There is a lot to like about this play. The story could be told as a dreary, naturalistic drama, but instead the writers opt for a bold, imaginative use of music and choreography. The music, by Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, has his signature all over it. But what impresses is the way the music is adapted to the location of the action. The club scenes intersperse electronic beats, while the Nigerian family has a soundtrack of West African guitar, yet the score remains cohesive.
The story is a conventional love story – they decide to get married, then there are obstacles, then the obstacles are overcome and the lovers reunite. Using a conventional story structure in this way allowed the writers to play with time and space. Flashbacks are used to dramatise the painful episodes in Obi’s past. The space shifts between their flat, Obi’s parents’ home, a club, a friend’s place, a shop and the wedding. All of this was depicted with the use of a few props.
The best innovation in this play is the barriers to the love. Classically, the family has been the biggest barrier. In this play, the families were part of the problem, but it was more the way the protagonists felt about their families and had internalised complexes about that, that caused the rifts between them. The barriers are Alex’s addiction and Obi’s inability to come to terms with his past and to talk about it. This changes the level of conflict from inter-personal (lovers and family) or extra-personal (lovers vs. society, which is often the theme of gay love stories), to intra-personal (each protagonist battling their inner demons). This is what made the play feel modern and relevant. It was a clever move to find a barrier that didn’t come across as clichéd or outdated.
What could be improved
It was seriously refreshing to see a love story between a gay, interracial couple that ends well; something we rarely see on the London stage. This play had the potential to have the audience jumping for joy by the end, but it didn’t quite get us there. Why?
In the classic love story, in the first act we see the couple falling in love; in act two, we witness the barriers to their love; and in act three they are either reunited or permanently torn apart.
In Leave to Remain, the couple are in love from the beginning. The “inciting incident” is when Alex’s job is moved to the UAE and the pair need to get married so that he can get a visa to stay in the UK, and they can see if the relationship will develop further. This is an interesting twist, but it leaves it unclear to the audience what is keeping the couple together when the going gets tough in act two. Is it a visa wedding or a love wedding? Answer: a bit of both. This is fine and true to life for a lot of people, but it makes it hard to believe that the love was sufficiently strong to withstand the barriers to the love and to bring them back together.
The problem is that we didn’t see the couple falling in love, so we don’t know why they love each other. I found it particularly hard to see why Obi loves Alex when Alex is “a spoiled child” ( indeed another character is in love with Alex, and again it was hard to see why). What we needed was a scene where we saw Obi and Alex falling in love: did they transform each other in some way? Did they teach each other something? Did one lover unearth parts of the other character previously unknown to themselves? Why do these two characters fit together as soul mates? If we knew why they were destined to be together, we would have been willing them on more forcefully by the end. Mere physical attraction works in love-at-first-sight stories, but in Leave to Remain, the couple had been together for ten months, lived together, and were aware of each others’ flaws.
Another issue is that the women characters feel stereotyped. The shrill, nagging, interfering American mother; the put-upon Nigerian mother who was too weak to stand up for her son against his homophobic father; and the strong, independent big sister. Towards the end of the play, we eventually hear from the mothers, but they tell us their feelings about their husbands and sons. The sister, Chichi, could have been a great character. She’s a barrister and single mother, who looked out for her little brother when the parents abandoned him. But that’s all we know about her. Why is she a barrister? Why did she have a child on her own? What struggles did she face as the daughter of first-generation, Nigerian immigrants to become the successful woman she is today? We don’t learn anything about her story. This play would not pass the Bechdel Test because the women barely interact and when they do they are talking about men. Of course, not all the characters need to be fully developed, but the women characters didn’t need to be for us to know something of their desires and motivations beyond their relationships to men.
Overall, this play was refreshing and inventive in the way it played with the love story. But a few tweaks could have taken it from a good play to a great one.
Leave to Remain plays at the Lyric Hammersmith until 16 Feb 2019.