Labels are easy to create: they can even be fun. They have a purpose and can prevent you from putting salt on your cereals and sugar on your shepherd’s pie. Give something a name and you know what it is, what to expect from it, and you don’t have to think any more because you’ve already defined it and it’s not going to change. They fit objects nicely, but don’t go so well on people.
It is a robust, enlightening and touching work that should be shown in schools and theatres all over the country
Writer/performer Joe Sellman-Leava knows a lot about labels. He grew up with them in rural Devon, not that there are any more there than in other parts of the country. His name sounds a bit posh. There’s nothing like a double-barrelled surname to make you stand out from the crowd, to make people think you must come from a good background with respectable parents - and Joe did. His parents were proud, honourable people. They were also of mixed heritage and as a married couple had a very traditional Indian surname. His Dad was told it might be stopping him from getting a job, so he changed it. The new label worked well and he was soon employed. Joe was five years old; it was the nineties.
That’s just a snippet from Joe’s remarkable autobiographical critique of the history of race relations in Britain, the rhetoric of the immigration debate and the power of language. From Enoch Powell in the 1960s to Michael Farage in this year’s General Election, the issues associated with creating and living in a multicultural society have always been at the forefront of politics, and it’s staggering to hear what some people have said about it. Joe has much of it conveniently recorded and catalogued, lest people forget.
Labels tells an honest, open and intensely human story. Joe has an endearing manner, a naturally mellow voice, a wry smile and a pensive hesitancy, but that doesn’t stop him getting angry and indignant when he relates tales of injustice, ignorance, bullying and discrimination. What we hear is challenging and captivating with an undercurrent of didacticism. This very personal and intimate work fits perfectly into the current theatre space - with his audience gathered around him, there is a feeling of being a privileged guest at a soirée.
Emma Thompson describes this third highly-acclaimed show from Worklight Theatre as ‘powerful, important and funny’ and she’s right. It is a robust, enlightening and touching work that should be shown in schools and theatres all over the country, acting as a reminder that some labels fall off, some get rewritten, but most stick. The one that should stick to Joe and his show is ‘brilliant’ and this is one he can wear with justifiable pride.