Review: Red Velvet

If you love a good contemporary play, Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet is more than worth flicking through. The Olivier Award nominated theatrical coup has run at the Tricycle Theatre in London twice in the two years since its premiere.

The Tricycle in Kilburn is proud of its ethos, and aims to reflect cultural diversity – and in this play within a play set in the 1800’s, a notorious black American actor, Ira Eldridge, plays Othello. Thus a crucial point of change in London’s culturally diverse history is played out in the theatre, whilst out in the streets the public riot over the abolition of slavery. You might recognize Adrian Lester (Mickey from the BBC’s Hustle) who as well as playing Ira on the stage, is Chakrabarti’s husband.


Underlying racial tensions are clearly played out as we witness the “collective intake of breath” and discomfort of the cast when Ira insists on embracing Ellen, the (white) actress playing Desdemona. The director hisses as Ira explains of the scene that he is “imagining the marital bed”.

It is an intriguing complement to the recent surge of interest in the history of abolition which accompanied the British drama film Belle, starring Gugu-Mbatha Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle (reviewed by York Vision earlier this year).

Both scripts seek to unearth previously shadowy figures of history, creating imagined experiences based on the little-known but true stories of real people.

At the same time, the play will force you to think about the political subtext of theatre and about issues easily translatable to present day stagecraft and politics. The character Pierre declares: “It’s about all of us. About survival. Progress. We are riding a dead horse. Can you not feel it? We sit through lifeless plays that say nothing about who we are. Theatre is a political act, a debate of our times. This is our responsibility, n’est ce pas? We have to confront life, out there, on our stage, in here. Make it live.”