REVIEW: LABELS (Theatre Royal Stratford East)

Labels is about immigration, racism and why we feel the need to file each other into neat little categories. Is it fear? Curiosity? Or can labelling be a case of intelligent and wilful emotional manipulation? A one man show that has enjoyed an award-winning run at the Edinburgh Fringe, Labels has a stint at the brand new space at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as part of an international tour that continues until July.

Joe Sellman-Leava gives us his story of growing up in Cheltenham and gradually realising that some people saw him as being different. For various anecdotes involving his family members he does entertaining and affectionate impersonations. He also quotes prominent public figures from the past 50 years – his Katie Hopkins is scarily accurate and the 1964 Tory party manifesto makes an appearance. This exploration of the language employed over time to describe different migration events and the people involved does a great job of calling out the bald hypocrisy surrounding immigration in public and political life.

These are complex issues and Sellman-Leava’s writing handles them deftly and without preaching. The show creates a relaxed space in which many aspects engage directly with the audience. Sellman-Leava establishes an easy repartee early on, handing out sticky labels, teaching the front row how to make paper aeroplanes and inviting someone to be ‘Tinder Gemma’ in order to act out an online conversation.

At times sad and shocking, often funny and always boldly honest, this simple show challenges us to explore our own feelings and perceptions. By the end of the show it is hard not to feel attached to Sellman-Leava. Labels is both deeply personal and completely relatable and there’s a great deal of power in that.

Reviewed by Annabel Mellor
Photo: Anna Bruce

Labels plays at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 30 April 2016