Curious review: new play from gifted storyteller Jasmine Lee-Jones feels unfinished

·3-min read
Jasmine Lee-Jones performs in Curious  (Helen Maybanks)
Jasmine Lee-Jones performs in Curious (Helen Maybanks)

The swagger and delight in language that won Jasmine Lee-Jones the Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright for her debut play seven methods of killing kylie jenner in 2019 shine again in this new monologue, which she also performs. Curious is a 90-minute meditation on identity by a young, black London lesbian who’s attracted to men but still a virgin, alienated from her studies at a super-white drama school.

Some of these facts tally with Lee-Jones’s background, and even if the show isn’t strictly autobiographical, it feels like we’re being taken into her confidence. There are frank discourses on vibrators and guilt, periods and thirst traps. If anything, this mixture of theatre, stand-up and storytelling is too muted and conversational. A bout of laryngitis, which laid Lee-Jones out and put back the show’s opening for a week, may be to blame.

The main character, ‘Jasmine’, feeling frustrated and marginalised while rehearsing a restoration drama, becomes obsessed with the idea of a forgotten 18th-century predecessor. This woman, Celia, is an escaped female slave who played both the traditionally white leading roles of her age, and Othello. She was also a prostitute by necessity and the lover of an aristocratic woman by choice.

Parallel narratives detail Jasmine’s vexed relationship with her bling-y, lascivious friend Mon, and her growing attraction to a wilfully enigmatic dude at the Black Cultural Archives. One of the great delights of the show for a London audience is the still-visceral antipathy north Londoner Jasmine has for Mon’s domain south of the river, and Lee-Jones’s eye for the minutiae of life in the capital’s recent past. Her city is a place of chicken boxes, shoplifting at Topshop and religious-themed hookup parties in Croydon, where you’re always out of signal or juice. She’s one of the few dramatists who reflects our contemporary dependence on our phones.

The text moves between frequently filthy rat-tat-slang and a more poetic sensibility – the printed text is actually shaped like a concrete poem. Lee-Jones is a relaxed, engaging presence as she modulates between characters with a slight change of accent or stance. Anna Himali-Howard’s production could do with a bit more pace and variety, but also fewer crashingly stark lighting changes. The set mostly consists of a four-poster bed, a disabled toilet cubicle, and a disembodied hand that that provides props through gaps in the encircling curtains.

Lee-Jones is a truly gifted storyteller, both on the page and in the flesh. But enjoyable as it is, there’s something unfinished and student-y about Curious. Indeed, it looks like Lee-Jones mounted a version of it while doing drama at Guildhall. In the final moments here, she surges into a glorious, furious, associative torrent of words. And then, abruptly, it ends.

Soho Theatre, until 16 Oct; sohotheatre.com

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