Review: Princess & The Hustler at the Playhouse Theatre

By Nigel Smith

CHINONYEREM Odimba’s new play Princess & The Hustler is produced by Eclipse Theatre, Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck, and is here in Liverpool as it nears the end of a 7-venue tour.

The action takes place in Bristol in 1963. Phyllis ‘Princess’ James is 10 years old and lives with her mother Mavis and her older brother, Wendell ‘Junior’. She dreams of winning a beauty pageant in nearby Weston-Super-Mare. Occasional fantasy sequences see her making an acceptance speech as the four-square living room of a set becomes transparent and Princess’s bedroom basks under a mirror ball.

Behind this fantasy lies the rather more grim reality of life. Mavis (Donna Berlin) tries to eke out a living as a single parent, and if she can’t provide the gifts to go under it she has managed to adorn the room with a tiny Christmas tree. Opening scenes set up the dynamic between Mavis and her two children, only for it to be rocked to its foundations with the arrival of Wendell Senior, ‘The Hustler’. He did a runner years ago and now suddenly turns up looking to parachute himself back into the household, along with another young daughter who he’s brought back with him from Liverpool.

Seun Shote gives a solid performance as the feckless Hustler, while Berlin’s Mavis is a rather more fleshed out characterisation. Fode Simbo has considerable presence as Wendell Junior but it’s Kudzai Sitima as Princess who steals the stage for the most part in her rendering of the daydreaming 10-year-old.

The story is set during the Bristol Bus Boycott, when the community rebelled against the local bus company’s refusal to employ black or Asian crew. Whilst there are some mentions of the dispute and a brief depiction of a demonstration (which employs a community chorus of local performers) the broader politics seems to be rather swept aside. In a similar way, there’s a fleeting mention of “the ships that brought you over here” which is little more than a nod to the Windrush generation. There is some real opportunity here for some deeper political commentary – especially in light of recent events – but Odimba seems to keep this at arm’s length and the piece becomes rather more a kitchen sink drama, reminiscent of the films of the ‘60s.

Dawn Walton’s direction keeps things rattling along at such a pace that some of the dialogue falls short of reaching the stalls intact, but the energy and commitment of the performances and the wit of the writing keeps the audience on-side.

The play’s reluctance to really grapple with the underlying issues of the story is a disappointment, and the brief appearances of the community chorus are something of a mystery in terms of how they add to the narrative. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging piece of family drama that goes some way toward highlighting some thorny issues that sadly remain as pertinent today as they were in 1963.