Review: Princess & The Hustler, Bristol Old Vic
Updated: Feb 18, 2019
"My name is Phyllis Princess James. I will wear this crown every day. I will never take it off even when I am asleep.” And so we meet ten-year-old Phyllis, the 'princess' who dreams of winning the Weston-super-Mare beauty contest. Played brilliantly by Kudzai Sitima, she positions her imaginary crown and dances in delight, even managing to persuade her formidable mother to briefly dance along with her in their living room.
Set against the backdrop of the Bristol bus boycott of 1963, local playwright Chinonyerem Odimba sets an intimate scene in Bristol Old Vic's Weston Studio. We find out more about Princess's family - her mum Mavis is a hard-working single mother who has no time to indulge in dreams, and her brother Wendell Junior is a keen photographer, but he has little interest in taking pictures of his younger sister, despite her pleas.
Enter the Hustler, Princess and Wendell's absent father. Wendell Senior returns from Liverpool, to the wrath of his long-suffering wife, and to face outright hostility from a son he barely knows. Adding to the complications is another visitor, Wendell's mixed-race daughter, who is immediately befriended as a 'sister' by Princess.
It's certainly a busy opening to this play, but the individual performances are fantastic. The stand-out star is Donna Berlin as Mavis, who superbly portrays the matriarch with small glimpses of softness and fun hidden behind her tough exterior.
Each character is interesting in their own right however, and the punchy dialogue flows easily between them. There are plenty of comical moments too, including a particularly tense Christmas dinner, as the newly reunited family sit down to eat together for the first time.
The second half of the play is more serious, as racial tensions from outside begin to seep into the family home. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of white neighbour and friend Margot. Charismatically played (with a thick Bristol accent) by Jade Yourell, she struggles with balancing her love for Mavis and her daughter, against her deep-seated prejudices.
When news finally comes through on the radio that the boycott has been successful, Wendell sits alone and silently weeps, a quietly emotional moment, but one that would be critical in the black British civil rights movement.
The Bristol bus boycott was famous in the South West, but little known elsewhere. It felt important to watch this play in the city, with many local references in the script, and with the original bus boycotters, Roy Hackett and Paul Stephenson, in the audience. This is a thoroughly enjoyable production with some excellent performances, and one which tells an important story in Bristol's history.
Princess & the Hustler is a co-production by Eclipse Theatre Company, Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck Theatre. It runs at the Bristol Old Vic until until Sat 23 Feb, before heading on a UK-wide tour. Find out more and buy tickets here.
Disclaimer: I was offered two complimentary tickets in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts are my own. Photo credits: The Other Richard