Le Gateau Chocolat: Black at Theatre Royal Stratford East
He possesses enough charisma to outshine a basket of Labrador puppies and more sass than you could shake a perfectly coifed wig at, but Le Gateau Chocolat’s fabulousness competes with an immovable darkness. Black is a piece of soul-baring that dares to speak the name of dark topics like suicidal depression while offering respite in the form of humour and hope.
The overt glamour of some previous shows is stripped back, but Le Gateau Chocolat does keep the trademark false eyelashes (the ones that accentuate every forlorn gaze and every coquettish glance) and black leotard.
Behind the simple set (a bed, a bare light bulb, an overhanging picture frame) sits the Psappha ensemble, a full live orchestra. Their position at the very back, partially concealed by a curtain, dispenses with any pomp or ceremony and shifts the focus to the music.
Thanks to cartoon animated vignettes and voiceover narration, the story of Little Black is told. A young boy growing up in Nigeria, he dreams of becoming a star of the opera, clad in fine dresses and ropes of pearls. As he grows up, small moments transpire to chip away at this dream, until one day he finds himself an adult working as a lawyer, “a dream that his daddy has given him”.
This show draws on Le Gateau’s opera repertoire, including music by Wagner and Purcell. Songs by Nina Simone and Billie Holiday are also delivered in operatic style, allowing the performer’s trademark baritone to take centre stage. Those rich notes anchored down low belie the vulnerability that his higher, tenderer notes hint at.
The stark brutality of Strange Fruit‘s lyrics, “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” packs a gut-punch, while the grief-stricken My Man’s Gone Now carries tortured poignancy. I Wanna Dance with Somebody turns into a lonely moment, delivered slow and soft alongside piano and mournful violins. Dido’s Lament is sung in the dark and languishes in the minor key.
There are plenty of lighter moments as the artist’s irrepressible pizzazz shines through, but the overriding message is sombre. “There is no prescribed path to the light,” Le Gateau Chocolat tells his audience. In the face of near insurmountable bleakness, we can but struggle on.
Black is a requiem for the optimism of childhood. In this Pandora’s box of demons, hope comes in the form of beauty, bravery and the power of music.
Photo: Robbins Photographic
Le Gateau Chocolat is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 4th until 8th of April 2017, for further information or to book visit here.
Watch the trailer for Black here: