While there is no escaping summer 2013 in London at the moment, the main space at the Bush has been projected back in time, emerging as a pre-war club with red velvet hangings and intimate, candle-lit tables. And on stage, two eras exist simultaneously as the spectacular, largely forgotten story of Josephine Baker – street kid, vaudeville star, resistance heroine, civil rights campaigner – is brought to us by a young, black performer Cush Jumbo, who idolised Baker as a child and bears many similarities to her heroine.
Jumbo is fast becoming a star herself, her recent, remarkable performance as Mark Anthony at the Donmar Warehouse placing her instantly on a par with her Julius Caesar co-stars, Frances Barber and Harriet Walter. Josephine and I is her first play, and its appearance at the Bush is an unmissable chance to see Jumbo making full use of her outsized talent in a small space.
The play is a clever balance between history and provocative, insightful thinking. Employing a couple of very clever coups de théâtre (it would be shame to give them away, but an actual dog called Henry is involved), Jumbo uses Baker’s story to create perspective on being black, being a woman, and being an actor. Her lightness of touch is impressive, and she makes a strong case for Josephine Baker as an amazing figure, brave, pioneering and larger-than-life, who deserves to be re-examined. Jumbo has a great time dancing Baker’s sometimes bonkers routines, and recreating her huge adopted family of 12 children, from 10 different countries. She also draws gasps from the audience with her illustration of shameless racism in 1950s America and Britain today.
High quality direction from Phyllida Lloyd and design by Anthony Ward retains a fringe feel but packs in the ideas, most of which emerge from Jumbo’s costume box. Her final rendition of The Times They Are A-Changin’, recreating Baker’s own unlikely triumph, reclaims both Baker and Dylan for 2013. Josephine and I is a fine writing debut from a brilliant, captivating performer, both persuasive, important drama and a great night out in equal measure. There is every reason to brave the heat and see what’s cooking in W12.
Josephine and I is at the Print Room, 7 Uxbridge Road, W12 8LJ until 17 August. To book click here.