This review was originally written for EdFringeReview.com
Part lecture, part storytelling, part performance, Worklight Theatre’s Labels is one of the most topical productions at this year’s Fringe. Written and performed by Joe Sellman-Leava, it is an autobiographical account of his rich family history that flits from India to Devon, via Uganda, Cheltenham and more.
But this is more than a story; it is an extremely powerful examination of how we attach labels to each other, how we pigeonhole people based on their appearance and their background, and ultimately, how close modern British society is to the racism and self-preserving instincts of Enoch Powell.
Sellman-Leava is simply magnificent. His easy-going, endearingly polite, and gently witty exterior clearly masks an enormous emotional depth. This is the highly personal story of his family and their struggle with their own identity in the face of prejudice and it is told with great verve and sensitivity.
Throughout, Sellman-Leava carries a sizeable travelling case around the stage, within which are dozens of paper labels that he periodically sticks on himself and members of his audience throughout the performance. By the show’s end, Sellman-Leava is covered with a host of names, places, and insults – all of which he has been identified with at some point in his life: ‘New Boy’, ‘India’, ‘Brother’, and some more unsavoury ones.
Such a device is typical of the ingenuity that characterises Labels. Sellman-Leava has constructed a show that is engaging not just because of the story that it tells, but because of the way that it is told with innovative lighting, novel audience interaction techniques, simply yet effective costume changes.
The story of Sellman-Leava’s family is the springboard to which he launches into a deeper discussion of xenophobia and prejudice in contemporary Britain, which focusses particularly on debate surrounding ‘illegal’ immigration. Sellman-Leava rarely over-emphasises his arguments, but prefers instead to lightly touch upon some forceful conclusion, leaving a profound sentence dangling in the air or simply holding up some implicative message on a sheet of white paper.
Perhaps Label’s most impactful moments are when Sellman-Leava recites fragments of speeches from British history, holding up signs stating when they were delivered and by whom. From Enoch Powell’s River Of Blood speech, to Katie Hopkins recent comments comparing African migrants to cockroaches. Sellman-Leava’s lack of comment on these racist diatribes is more powerful than anything he could say. The audience is left to draw the inevitable conclusion: how little we have progressed in over half a century, and how pitiably we kid ourselves with delusions of equality.
Yet Labels’ message is not a defeatist one; it is one of hope. Sellman-Leava, partly due to his sincerity and partly to his obvious determination and pride, imparts a great sense of optimism. His family’s story is thoroughly absorbing, his delivery of it is commendable, and his ability to effectively engage his audience is superb. This is a show that demands to be heard, and deserves to be seen.