Splintered review: cabaret-like celebration is full of brio and ideas

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H

ow can you not love a show that begins with one of its stars downing a shot from a menstrual cup? This cabaret-inspired celebration of queer Caribbean women is fearlessly its own thing, and all the more enjoyable for it.

Written and directed by Emily Aboud and based on a mix of “research and imagination”, Splintered features a supremely likeable cast of three performing a series of sketches, dance routines, history lessons and patter with the audience, alongside recorded interviews. The mood is often celebratory, with the dressing up and dancing of carnival a moment of freedom, when queer women can openly ‘revolt’ on the streets. But there’s a sense of melancholy at its core as the women grapple with the constant peril of homophobic attitudes within the culture.

This is a show that throws a lot at the wall, but the most memorable scenes focus on coming out to your mum (‘the final boss’) and being in love with your straight best friend. Both are met with murmurs of recognition by the audience. Other scenes include a reimagined Cell Block Tango featuring moments when women realised they were gay (“Relatable Gay Content,” the cast seductively whisper), a takedown of Shakespeare told entirely through orgasm noises, a discussion about whether the homophobia within the culture can be traced back to colonialism, and a delightfully absurd dance routine taking aim at homophobia within the church. Like I said… there are a lot of ideas here.

Melissa Saint in Splintered

/ Lidia Crisafulli

The cast are wonderfully game. As a young woman in love with her pal, Melissa Saint brings the room to a standstill with a yearning, tender rendition of Bob Marley’s Waiting In Vain. Alice Vilanculo draws out both the comedy and pain in sequin jacket-wearing Ruby, facing the dawning realisation that after she tells her mum about her sexuality, she has to come out over and over again every day to various people she meets. And Chanté Faucher keeps the energy up with charm, playfully nodding to the audience, much to its delight.

Aboud, a recipient of the Standard’s Future Theatre Fund, which supported emerging theatremakers affected by the pandemic, is a highly original talent to watch. Splintered is what new work from emerging theatre companies should feel like: it’s bold, unabashed, energetic, fun and full of ideas, even if they don’t all come off. The MC device can feel ingratiating – “are you ready for the second act?” – and it feels occasionally as though the writing assumes what the audience feels or knows. Aboud is also unapologetic about spelling out what she’s trying to say – at one point, we hear a recording of her telling an interviewee, “that was my whole thesis – carnival is gay as shit!” But it’s all done with such brio that these quibbles don’t matter so much.

The reason the show is able to achieve a real sense of catharsis is not because it is an evening of bouncy escapism. The trauma it mines underneath the energy and the fun shows that joy often has to be found in spite of pain. Towards the end, Ruby finally comes out to her mum and moments pass where she receives no reply. In the silence, someone in the audience said out loud, “I’m proud of you, man.” Joy, discovery, celebration and pain all together.

Soho Theatre, until Feb 26; sohotheatre.com

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