Labels

The superfluous orations of Joe Sellman-Leava see his one-man act deliver strong discourse aimed at unboxing the confines that social tags put upon our species. He does not seek to take on the world for its many faults as much as he implores it to conform to a unilateral standard. Does it manage to achieve this titanic feat? In some sense, but not without damaging its credibility. The theatrical elements at play cannot reconcile the ineptitudes of political mishmash. Alone, the verbal dexterity is eminent, but the poetry-slam monologues, imputing memories of colonialism, the pain of racist stigma and the inclusiveness of country borders, are deceptively erroneous, with pastiche, joviality that belies its underlying incentives for globalisation.

As a show it is enjoyable. As a bastion against racist bullying it is a triumph. But as a political commentary it falls utterly short.

Our host begins by ridiculing some recent historical figures. A suitcase is his only companion, inside of which hosts a toolkit of props that later become detrimental to his routine. His scarily accurate imitations include a line-up of Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins, Donald Trump, David Cameron, Nick Griffin, Eunuch Powell, David Sarkey and Ed Miliband, where each are delivered in quick succession and poignantly satirise their intended targets.

The dynamic kinetics of Sellman-Leava’s delivery transgresses the fourth wall with the inclusion of props, and succeeds in impressing upon you the depths of creative passion, but as with all slam poetry it occasionally produces operatic nonsense against the intended backdrop of social justice. Still, Sellman-Leava’s natural talents in public speaking, combined with the amphitheatre viewing arrangement, sees him frequently engage with his audience to promising results. Halfway through he invites the audience to reign a barrage of paper airplanes down upon him before he arms himself with a stool to aid him in his protracted soliloquy about racist abuse he has experienced. Sound and lighting are handled expertly in these exhibitions of sheer hypnotic charisma.But it is not the storytelling and comedic elements which bring it down.

Labels’ greatest weakness is its narrow political mindset that, ironically, employs labels to smear its right-wing adversaries without offering explanation. Sellman-Leava acknowledges his hypocrisy by literally eating his own words, but this does not rectify any prior convictions. Anti-discrimination is conflated with political correctness whilst anti-immigration is conflated with racism, a dangerous precedent and a juvenile attempt to shield it from criticism. Equally, his defence of illegal immigrants attempts to guilt trip viewers into falling for his misinformed comments about the UK’s population density. Essentially, he is deliberately confusing valid critiques of overpopulation with mouth-frothing patriotism on a cursory level that belies common sense, where the Devonite refuses to acknowledge the details surrounding ‘Syrian’ migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

Against the success of its narrative structure, the overarching message is disappointing: Labels stumbles to present a refined solution to these problems where the finale ultimately offers no reconciliation but a mere think-before-you-speak closer that goes on the naïve assumption that the world will abide with its stilted philosophies when the reality is we won’t be singing ‘Kumbaya’ anytime soon. The paradox of tolerance is not resolved either, where the only definable message is that any criticism of unmitigated immigration instantly makes you Katie Hopkins. As a show it is enjoyable. As a bastion against racist bullying it is a triumph. But as a political commentary it falls utterly short, appealing only on a sanctimonious, patronisingly glorified level which does not allow room for critical debate nor see it graduate beyond appeasing the many champagne socialists in attendance.

Reviews by Stuart Mckenzie

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Performances

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The Blurb

'Powerful, important and funny' (Emma Thompson). The critically acclaimed, true story of migration, family and prejudice returns to Edinburgh. Navigating a childhood in 90s England, the rise of the far right and a global refugee crisis, Labels is an honest, human story from multicultural Britain. Expect paper planes, racist romances and lots of sticky labels! 'Terrific and really thoughtful' (Lyn Gardner, Guardian). Winner: Scotsman Fringe First 2015 and Holden Street Award 2015. Winner: Best Theatre, Adelaide Fringe and Peace Foundation Prize 2016. Winner: People's Choice Award, Vault Festival 2017.

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