Tambo & Bones at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review

Dave Harris’ blistering and erudite double two-hander was in development at New York’s Playwrights Horizons two years before Michael R Jackson’s Strange Loop debuted on the same stage in 2019 and emerged on Broadway, post-pandemic, to sweep the 2022 Tony awards. With Jackson’s much-gonged musical opening at the Barbican this week, we are doubly blessed in London to welcome an evolved version of Harris’ work – also raising questions about ‘double consciousness’ just a few miles east at the storied political theatre palace of Joan Littlewood.

Rhashan Stone (Tambo) in Tambo & Bones at Stratford East. Photographer The Other Richard.
Rhashan Stone (Tambo) in Tambo & Bones at Stratford East. Photographer The Other Richard.

Harris’ play takes its name from two American Minstrel show archetypes that entered the cultural canon before the Civil War. A feature of Mississippi River boat entertainment, Tambo was a ‘blacked-up’ marionette operated by a white puppeteer (for a white audience) with mockery and exaggeration as the foil to Mr Bones, another puppet (think animated golly dolls). Considered uniquely American, this simplistic and racist commedia dell’arte is also sometimes seen as seminal folk art to that younger nation across the Atlantic. Or, as Harris concisely explains via his stage directions: ‘fake-ass’. Indeed, the whole question of what is self-denying, people-pleasing performance and what is just entertainment rises and falls viscerally and intellectually throughout this layered and brilliant work.

The context of Tambo and Bones minstrel sketches is not explained at the performance nor in the programme; and it is not a necessary prerequisite to feeling this production’s emotionally-transporting and thought-provoking qualities. Yet, the fact that in the same month of the 75th Windrush anniversary, a British cast are enacting, on an East End stage, a most knowing story (developed off-Broadway) that exposes the never-ending Anglo-American cultural trade in Jim Crow schtick – with all its multiple veneers of artifice, imitation and inhumanity – is gut-punchingly apt. Tambo and Bones (co-produced by Stratford East and Actors Touring Company) is a triumph of Stratford East’s artistic direction and curation as well as an act of theatrical importance on its own.

Dave Harris has written a dense and brainy script. But his story is one of hope and humanity more than it is an angry jeremiad. To find this texture requires true art; director Matthew Xia not only rises to the occasion by sweating every detail but also never loses sight of the work’s mammoth themes. Rhashan Stone (Tambo) and Daniel Ward (Bones) leave nothing backstage. Exquisite comic timing, musicality, dramatic intensity and improvisation are all on display in a way that reminds us of the agonising work to deliver ‘effortless genius’. And that is much the point. Who is ‘fake-ass’? Who has a ‘plan’? What is the ‘game’ and how does one win? And can we laugh and clap and sing along on the way? Because we absolutely do. This two-act play is not a dirge or a lecture – it is jubilant and important; proving it’s possible to be both uncomfortable and happy at the same time.

As modern versions of the antebellum marionettes illustrating what happens if the story never ends, dancers Jaron Lammens and Dru Cripps take physicality to another level and rightly earned whoops for their muscular control and stamina. But the casting was no panto gimmick: impressing an audience with superhuman skill and precision is part of the dilemma the play explores and in which the audience becomes joyfully and terrifyingly complicit. Tambo and Bones is rich and meaty – on target but never on-the-nose. Dystopian, absurdist, comical and engrossing, Dave Harris has brought a new classic to the London stage.

5 Stars

Review by Mary Beer

Tambo and Bones are stuck in a minstrel show. It’s hard to know what’s real when you’re stuck in a minstrel show. Their escape plan: get out, get rich, get even.

Join Tambo (Rhashan Stone) and Bones (Daniel Ward) on their journey from comedy double-act, to hip-hop superstars, to activists in an America at the epicentre of the global Black Lives Matter movement.

TAMBO & BONES laughs through our past, blows the roof off our present and imagines an explosive future for our world… and for theatre.

The cast includes Rhashan Stone as Tambo and Daniel Ward as Bones. Dru Cripps and Jaron Lammens complete the cast as X-BOT-1 and X-BOT-2

Written by Dave Harris
Directed by Matthew Xia
Designed by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey & ULTZ
Lighting Design by Ciarán Cunningham
Hip-Hop Songs Composed by Excalibah
Sound Design & Additional Composition by Richard Hammarton
Movement Direction by Kloé Dean
Video Design by Gino Ricardo Green
Casting Direction by Julia Horan
Assistant Direction by Danielle Kassarate
Fight Direction by Kevin McCurdy
Costume Supervision by Ysanne Tidd
Dramatherapist Wabriya King
Stage Manager Marie-Angelique St. Hill
Deputy Stage Manager Phyllys Egharevba
Assistant Stage Manager Anna Townley

Until Saturday 15 July 2023 | www.stratfordeast.com

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