Review: I stopped...when at The Vaults
Hurray hurrah, the Vaults Festival is back! One of our seasonal staples, if you’ve never been to the Vaults Festival then we feel very sorry for you and we suggest you amend posthaste. (That’s fancy for “quick”) On until March 17 across Waterloo, we kicked off the first of many visits to the festival with a truly special show.
And we’re going to tell you all about it.
“I stopped… when” is a ‘verbatim-as-poetry’ show exploring the – frankly, massive - complexities around interracial dating, identity and the relationship between art and artist. The latest work by polymath, Nicole Acquah, it centres on three young poets – Adele, Wren, and Naya – who are competing in a slam competition and navigating love and self-expression as best they can. Shy, optimistic Adele has a black mother, a white father, and a problematic white boyfriend, and is played with touching naivety and subtle strength by Lauren La Rocque. Wren, played by Tom Nguyen, is a kind, open Singaporean student, looking for love. And Acquah plays Naya, the activist, whose bitingly clever poems offer a channel for some of her righteous anger – but not all of it.
First up, I know slam poetry isn’t everyone’s bag. I get it. I too find the earnestness intimidating, and the appreciative finger-clicking oddly menacing. But guys, GUYS… the poetry in this show is magic. Each character’s “style” is well differentiated and the poems are fantastic. Powerful, moving, clever. Honestly, if this had even just been a slam poetry gig it would have got ten out of ten from me.
But it also provided the play with a really interesting feature – a vehicle for the characters to express their deepest emotions without it coming across as jarring or stylised. Which is useful when tackling the big issues, and boy does this cover the BIG issues. From the complicated reality of interracial dating, to quiet insidious racism in the arts, to the abusive relationships, Acquah’s script deals with the nuances of each of these topics well.
If I had one criticism, it would be the portrayal Naya and Wren’s relationship. Trying to tell a complete and compelling story in one hour is tough – and I think this is where the audience lost out. Although as a concept, I got why these two characters might have fallen in love, the way they talked to each other didn’t ring true, and the speed at which their relationship developed was simply too rushed. Which, for a show about interracial dating, was a real shame.
But it was clear that this was more down to time constraints than Acquah’s script-writing skill, as the relationship between Adele and Chris was bang on the money. In fact, Chris’s whole character was skilfully drawn, and beautifully acted by Joseph Cullen. At the open of the show, I instinctively warmed to his boisterous character and – soz Joseph – by the end of it, I really hated him. A lot. Like….loads.
Most touching of all for me were the moments between Naya and Adele. Their final heart-to-heart gave me a lump in my throat. Strong women recognising value in each other. Gorgeous. Director Dorcas A Stevens has kept set and stage directions to a minimum, turning all your focus to what the characters have to say. And the Vaults have, of course, an atmospheric perk in the shape of trains rattling overhead. In some shows this might have distracted, but in this one it added depth and texture, enhancing the drama.
All in all, I thought it was excellent – I just wanted an extra 15-20 minutes, so that Naya and Wren’s relationship could have evolved more naturally. Otherwise I thought the acting was first-rate, the players real and likeable, and the subject matter deeply important and well-handled.
I often worry, as a middle-class white girl, about reviewing shows like this properly. Having had the supreme sheer luck to have been born in a body and a world where I never encounter racism, it is crucial that I write with as much accuracy and sensitivity as possible. But if this jewel by Acquah, herself so taken with nuance and the many layers of human experience, has any message, it is that we can all be a little better every day by taking the time to listen, making space to discuss, and having the presence of mind to accept criticism when we slip up.
Also the poetry was fucking great.
I stopped…when is on at The Vaults until tomorrow. Grab a ticket now, now, now!