“SORRY! God, I’m so sorry. So embarrassing,” blurts a breathless Cush Jumbo as she stumbles onto the stage.
For a good while I thought that this was going to be a one-off, unfortunate fluke. As soon as the young actress’ own mobile phone went off, I became quite concerned about the future of this one-woman show. But within minutes I realised that this was all part of the act, and what gives Jumbo’s debut play, Josephine and I, its fresh, tangible conviction.
Jumbo seamlessly blurs fiction and reality with her thoughtful retelling of the life of Josephine Baker, the groundbreaking African-American dancing sensation of the Parisian 1920’s. Jumbo’s performance does more than just effortlessly capture the grit and passion of her childhood inspiration. She juxtaposes the star’s hardships and dreams with those of the character of the “Girl,” a twenty-something London actress who is equally experiencing the first rush of success, personal complications, and the bitter taste of racism. Even though the Girl’s narrative is only slightly autobiographical, the monologues boast an honesty so grounded that they appear to be improvised.
…the sparkle and thumping energy of cabaret entertainment makes an appropriate appearance…
Jumbo glides the audience through the parallel lives of the two women using only minor props, video projection, and a few apt costume choices. The use of a well-worn “Josephine” doll to counter the narrator’s reflections quietly evokes a child-like innocence, as well as a reminder of both Baker’s and her own early aspirations. But do not fear: the sparkle and thumping energy of cabaret entertainment makes an appropriate appearance. The direction of Phyllida Lloyd, whom also led Jumbo’s Olivier-nominated performance in Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse earlier this year, maximises the impressive versatility of the actress. In Josephine and I, Jumbo demonstrates her captivating ability to jump and dance back and forth between a bawdy Missouri stage manager and shrewd French director, not least countless other characters.
On the whole, the production maintains a comfortable pace throughout, despite the occasional sag or too-long rant. Jumbo’s reprise of Baker’s slurry, sultry ballads could have done with a bit more fine-tuning, but she still manages to capture the relaxed atmosphere of 1920’s nightclubs. Anthony Ward’s cosy seating design and candle-lit arrangement nicely fuels the intimacy of the Bush Theatre, and all the more brings us one step closer to the glamorous yet thick-skinned lives of the dual personas.
…The writer-performer has stripped down Baker’s story to its purest elements…
It is clear that Jumbo has paid a quirky but remarkable tribute to the entertainment powerhouse that was Baker. The writer-performer has stripped down Baker’s story to its purest elements, shattering previous misconceptions created by the star’s infamous cheeky banana dance. Beneath the feathers and silly faces, we see a woman who was nothing short of “persistent,” and one who clearly permeates the lives of modern-day audiences. “The Times They Are a-Changin'” for Jumbo, and judging by this wondrous solo debut, they can only change for the better.