Review: A voyage round my father with hip hop, stories and soup

When the performers at a show greet ticket holders at the door to the theatre and suggest they enjoy a cup of homemade soup being kept warm on a table on the stage, the audience know they are in for a performance with a difference.

The show, The Spinning Wheel, is certainly that. It is in a theatre but is not a play; it features live music but is not a concert; it includes video but is not a film; and it is not stand-up comedy despite the numerous anecdotes told over the course of the evening.

It is correctly billed as a multimedia experience presented by “theatre artist” and hip hop performer Baba Israel and musical collaborator Yako 400 who is on stage with guitar, base, keyboard and iPad.

The show celebrates the life and work of countercultural jazz musician, poet, comic, political activist and theatre producer Steve Ben Israel, Baba’s father, who died in 2012.

The use of public performance to celebrate the artist’s parents is not new - in Britain the best-known example is probably the book, film and play A Voyage Round my Father by John Mortimer - but it is certainly original.

Israel Sr appears on stage through video recording of his shows in New York and interviews by his son that are projected onto the high stacks of cardboard archive boxes that represent Israel Jr’s mission to bring order to his father’s tumultuous life.

While the show begins with Baba talking directly to the audience about how he dealt with his father’s death in 2012, it goes back through his life work.

a mish-mash of anecdote, video, hip hop music and story telling

From his collaboration with the New York jazz greats of the 1950s and 1960s through to his pioneering work with the experimental company Living Theatre - which saw him and others imprisoned by the Brazilian military dictatorship in 1971 - and his work as a stand-up comic and performance artist more recently, it is a varied voyage for the audience.

Baba intersperses the recollections with hip hop tunes and tales from his life in New York City that feature his visceral anger at the gentrification of his home town by rich newcomers and what he sees as the destructive force played by speculative money.

The fact that the audience for the performance that Disclaimer attended had to go in by a side entrance as the main theatre was booked out for a private function attended by extremely well-dressed Londoners only highlighted that these concerns are global.

Indeed when towards the end the audience is invited to offer themes for Israel to turn into a live rap, the suggestions are unsurprisingly radical: soaring property prices, the gentrification of Camden, the need for chaos, problems in Brazil, and pollution are all shouted out.

While the talkative Baba and silent Yoko form an interesting partnership slightly reminiscent of the UK Midlands duo Sleaford Mods, the star of the show is Steve Ben Israel whose performance of Spinning Wheel closes the performance.

Sometimes the show feels like a mish-mash of anecdote, video, hip hop music and story telling without a coherent thread and in some ways that is true.

But go and see it; you’ve probably not seen anything like it before and may not again. Also you may get more than you bargained for - the listing is for a 70 minute show but, hey!, this is avant garde theatre and Disclaimer’s version lasted 105 minutes.

The Spinning Wheel is showing at mac, Birmingham on Thursday 9 June and at Contact, Manchester on Saturday 11 June

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