L-R, Billy Cullum (Alex) and Tyrone Huntley (Obi) in LEAVE TO REMAIN at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photo - Johan Persson

A new play with songs by Matt Jones and Kele Okereke

“When I first read the script, I was so fucking eager to get this part. It was just so familiar to my life. That’s what I think is really powerful about it. It’s the familiarity that’s so impactful for me as a reader, let alone an actor in it.” Billy Cullum (Alex)

Obi (Tyrone Huntley) and Alex (Billy Cullum) are a young gay couple leading busy London lives. When Alex’s visa comes into question, their relationship takes a turn. Marriage is an option, but the timing isn’t perfect, and it means confronting their families and their pasts. Told through a blend of movement, drama and 14 new tracks by Kele Okereke, Leave to Remain is a tender portrait of love in the face of an uncertain future. Two weeks into rehearsals, we catch up with Tyrone and Billy to find out more.

L-R Billy Cullum (Alex) and Tyrone Huntley (Obi) © Helen Maybanks 2018

L-R Billy Cullum (Alex) and Tyrone Huntley (Obi) © Helen Maybanks 2018

 The Movement.

TH Our director, Robby Graham comes from a movement background so a lot of it is very physical. I haven’t done a show with this much movement in a long time; it is a lot more than I’m used to doing in musicals. It’s different but I’m up to the challenge – we’ll see what happens.

BC I’ve done a lot of movement shows, a lot of quite heavy dance shows, but I’ve never done any movement quite like this. And I can’t quite explain it either. Rather than being taught a dance routine, it’s like learning a whole new language. We’re doing that as a company every day, mini classes, learning about this new way of ‘contact dance’.

The Story.

 TH It’s about two young gay guys living in London. One of them, Alex, is American. Because of Brexit the company he works for is moving abroad, and because of his visa he either has to go to Abu Dhabi with the company or go back to America. They decide to get married so he can stay in the country – they’ve been in the relationship for less than a year. It’s about whether they’re making the right decision, whether they’re doing it for the right reasons.

BC There’s so many layers. Obi’s guarded in his love for Alex. He does love him but finds it very hard to completely open up. There’s a whole thing with that – his coming out story. And then my character was a drug addict; five years in recovery. In the LGBTQ+ community the suicide rate is high, the addiction rates are through the roof – it’s a different level. I don’t think people understand why, I think they see it as a lifestyle. What’s so important is that people understand where that’s coming from: shame. It’s the effect of shame growing up as a gay person. That’s what society has put on us from the get-go – boys play with blue toys, girls play with pink toys. It comes from gender stereotypes.

TH Many issues and themes are touched on in the show. Gay relationships, gay marriage, the relationships between the two lead characters and their parents, their coming out stories, it touches on religion and race. It’s a snapshot of this particular set of people in today’s world. It’s not reflective of every single experience – it’s very specific to the characters involved.

L-R, Sandy Batchelor (Raymond), Tyrone Huntley (Obi), Billy Cullum (Alex) and Arun Blair-Mangat (Damien) © Helen Maybanks 2018

L-R, Sandy Batchelor (Raymond), Tyrone Huntley (Obi), Billy Cullum (Alex) and Arun Blair-Mangat (Damien) © Helen Maybanks 2018

BC A lot of LGBTQ+ theatre pieces that involve two gay men largely focus on the effects of the 80s. It’s still so important to tell those stories, but there aren’t stories about gay marriage. My brother got married in the summer to a man, and the opening line of his speech was, ‘On the day we met, it was illegal for us to get married.’ It’s so weird, so bizarre. The line rings through my head doing this show. It’s so important to tell and it’s so important that gay marriage is usualised, and for it to be on an equal level.

The Music.

TH Kele Okereke from Bloc Party has written the music and it’s just incredible – there’s indie, jungle beats in there, definitely an African sort of foundation, afrobeat. He’s released the songs as an album, but also we’re putting that onstage; taking the pop songs and using them to tell a story, finding a way to get a song you could hear in a nightclub to make dramatic sense in the piece. Matt Jones, who wrote the book of the play, has done a really great job intertwining these songs into the story, making them not only fit the story but help move it forward.

L-R Robby Graham (director), Matt Jones (writer) and Kele Okereke (songs and music) © Helen Maybanks 2018

L-R Robby Graham (director), Matt Jones (writer) and Kele Okereke (songs and music) © Helen Maybanks 2018

 

BC I was a massive fan of Bloc Party. Kele’s in rehearsals and he was in the auditions. In the final audition, it went well but I was like, ‘I could not get this and then never see him again.’ So as I walked out, everyone on the creative team hugged me goodbye, and as I got to Kele, I was like, ‘You were the soundtrack to my sixth form!’ He was so gracious.

LGBT Representation.

BC As an LGBT actor, going to audition for something like Leave to Remain, I don’t have that stupid voice in my head saying, ‘Just act a little bit straighter when you go into this audition room, because that’s what they want. Lower that voice just a little bit more, bring those shoulders back, appear a little bit more masculine.’ You’re telling a story that is so close to what you are, that’s the beauty of this piece for me. I know acting is acting at the end of the day, but it’s nice to not have those preconceptions about an actor when they walk into the room.

 TH It’s so important to tell these stories and allow people to see reflections of themselves in theatre, TV and film. A couple of years ago Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture, which was incredible. And I think it’s so important and about time that these stories were focused on and told from various people’s points of view.

 

Leave to Remain plays Lyric Hammersmith until 16 February.

lyric.co.uk

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