George Takei stars in Allegiance, a gripping musical about Japanese internment — review

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From left, Masashi Fujimoto, George Takei and Aynrand Ferrer in ‘Allegiance’ © Danny Kaan

Allegiance

Charing Cross Theatre, London

It is a joy to see the Star Trek icon George Takei on the London stage. But the story he’s here to tell is a shameful one. The 85-year-old actor stars in Allegiance, a musical written by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione and inspired by Takei’s own childhood experience of being locked up in a US internment camp during the second world war. 

Takei, just five years old at the time, was one of 120,000 Japanese Americans interned by the US government following the Pearl Harbor attack: an egregious violation of their rights. The deprivation and humiliation of this experience form the texture of the musical, which follows fictitious families thrown together in the “relocation centre” at Heart Mountain, a dismal, sand-blown cluster of huts in Wyoming.

But it’s the test of allegiance, as the title suggests, that is the real nub of the piece. The young men, born in America, are first banned as “enemy aliens” from signing up — and then forced to enlist or be imprisoned. Those who choose to fight can expect to be sent on dangerous missions. “We can’t live free in this country, but we can die for it,” protests one character.

That conflict drives a wedge through the camp — between those enraged and determined to prove their loyalty by fighting and those enraged and determined to resist such a demand. The tension will eventually rip one family apart, with young Sammy committed to fight and his sister Kei falling for Frankie, who rebels.

The story is gripping and bowls along in Tara Overfield Wilkinson’s compact, pacy production on Mayou Trikerioti’s simple wooden set, evocative of a camp hut. The show is best when at its most acerbic. There are some witty lines — “I’m from Nebraska: dust is a food group” — and one of the standout songs, led by Patrick Munday’s excellent Frankie, is “Paradise”, a sarcastic number extolling the “virtues” of the camp. Telly Leung makes a strong, impassioned Sammy and Aynrand Ferrer is terrific as Kei, bringing the show to a stop with her superb solo “Higher”.

But the piece is held back by its dual purposes. It’s telling a dark political story — and one that has broader resonance today, given the divisive use of patriotism and national identity. But it also conforms to many of the norms of the Broadway musical — you could spot the romance developing between Sammy and American nurse Hannah from space. Meanwhile the death of a baby is passed over too swiftly. Few of the songs really stay with you and what is curious is that, given Takei’s presence and his own experience, there is no exploration of the huge impact of living for years in a camp as a young child.

Takei himself, however, lights up the stage, playing Sammy’s wise, mischievous grandfather in the camp, and then the older Sammy in the modern-day scenes that bookend the story. He brings a gentleness and lightness to the first role and, to the second, a wealth of gravitas, anger and sorrow that is most moving.

★★★☆☆

To April 8, allegiancemusical.com

On stage, a man and a woman sit on sunloungers with a backdrop of blue sea and sky; in the foreground stands a woman in a brightly coloured dress
From left, Reece Shearsmith, Frances Barber and Amanda Abbington in ‘The Unfriend’ © Manuel Harlan

The Unfriend

Criterion Theatre, London

A true story also provided the spark for Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend — albeit a much less serious one. When a friend described the time an irritating holiday acquaintance threatened to pay him a visit, Moffat instantly spotted comic potential. What if the acquaintance made good on that threat? And what if she was not only a social nightmare but an individual with an exceedingly dodgy past?

So it is that we have Elsa, a larger-than-life American, arriving with an alarming amount of luggage at the home of repressed Brits Peter and Debbie — a couple so ill-equipped to handle confrontation that, for years, neither of them has been able to admit to their tedious, nosy neighbour that they don’t know his name. So far, so bad. But when they google Elsa on the eve of her visit, they discover the body count that tends to follow in her wake. Are they giving house room to a serial killer? If so, how can they bring this up in polite conversation?

Answer: they can’t, and so, as Peter and Debbie squirm with embarrassment, Elsa gets her gold trainers firmly under the table. “We’re dying of manners,” says Debbie, despairingly, to Peter, while also having to admit that Elsa, mass murderer or not, has her uses. She has soon tamed the couple’s recalcitrant teenage children and put the busybody neighbour in his place.

Social awkwardness is a staple of British comedy and there is much about The Unfriend that is very amusing, although some set pieces feel rather over-engineered. There are also, bubbling underneath it, some deeper questions about moral relativism. But it’s the comic ability of the cast in Mark Gatiss’s production that makes the evening.

Reece Shearsmith and Amanda Abbington, as Peter and Debbie, are exquisitely funny comic actors who bring precision timing to their gestures and facial expressions as they talk their way into excruciating situations. Frances Barber, as the cuckoo in their midst, is likewise a comic delight. Her Elsa is a worthy successor to stage phenomena such as Lady Bracknell and Mrs Malaprop, her voice rolling from squeak to growl as Elsa blithely steamrollers all discomfort around her. And there’s a spot-on performance from Michael Simkins as the neighbour so infuriating that even the playwright declines to give him a name.

★★★☆☆

To April 16, theunfriend.com

A man stands on stage talking; next to him is a wooden stool
Alex Edelman in his one-man show, ‘Just for Us’ © Alastair Muir

Just for Us

Menier Chocolate Factory, London

Alex Edelman knows a thing or two about awkward social situations. Number one: he has encountered so many of those baffling, trivial questions that bedevil conversation that he’s perfected an all-purpose response. Number two: as a Jewish New York comedian, he once spent an evening at a meeting of white supremacists. The specifics on this — how he ended up there; how it went down (spoiler: tricky) — form the content of his brilliant one-man show Just for Us.

For 90 minutes he unspools this narrative, darting down side-alleys to do with identity and crossing boundaries, without losing the main thread. We hear about Robin Williams and his enviable ability to make even primates laugh; we hear about Edelman’s childhood in Boston and the bizarre occasion when his Orthodox Jewish family ended up having Christmas. But all this is suspended around a compelling central story in which he found himself trying to blend in with a group of anti-Semitic bigots. “Jews are sneaky and they’re everywhere,” says the man next to him as he nods along vigorously.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny and beautifully delivered by Edelman in Adam Brace’s production. But running through this sharp-eyed solo show are deep and serious points about empathy, about the complexity of identity, about the danger of echo chambers and about the ugly, deep-rooted presence of anti-Semitism in modern society.

★★★★☆

To February 26, menierchocolatefactory.com

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