Play: Anansi and the Grand Prize
Playwright: Edson Burton
Director: Nick Young
Venue: The Weston Studio, Bristol Old Vic
Review by Heather Marks
Set in a fictitious Caribbean island, Anansi and the Grand Prize is a bawdy story of Mas and romance as infamous trickster god Anansi tries to win the festival’s hefty cash prize while also trying to win back his wife.
The play begins with Anansi marrying the most beautiful woman on the island, Tacoma, played by Tanika Yearwood, who from the very beginning steals the show with her performance. Yearwood’s Tacoma is sweet, stern and sincere, and she has a great ear for comic timing. Anansi is played by the athletic Winston Pyke whose impressive physicality conveys the spidery-ness of the trickster god, sweeping across the floor in a balletic capoeira.
Trouble strikes the newlyweds when Anansi steals Tacoma’s emergency savings to make himself a costume for the carnival, hoping to win the £25,000 prize. Angered by this betrayal, Tacoma allows herself to be wooed by the island’s international superstar Jo Tell (Ikay Agu), who is also Anansi’s main competition for the prize. Between the two of them, who will win Tacoma’s heart and the £25,000?
Anansi and the Grand Prize is a raucous production that nods to classic folktales of the African diaspora and Caribbean culture, with a strong festival atmosphere created through Charleen Downer’s lively choreography.
There’s also an homage to the crooners of 90s R&B as Jo Tell serenades Tacoma; his heavy-handed seduction techniques eliciting both laughs and cringes. With its heavy feature of music and call and response, the play has a panto-esque quality.
While there are some gems in this production (Anansi’s dance with the Flying Peacock and the lovers’ song) there are several weaknesses which should have been ironed out given Anansi and the Grand Prize received an earlier outing this year at Ferment Fortnight, Bristol Old Vic’s testing ground for new writing.
Projection is a serious issue when it comes to singing for the cast (bar a few exceptions in Agu and Yearwood). A lack of dynamic energy in the Storyteller, who plays a kind of MC, leads to lost jokes and weak interactions with the audience. Ill-fitting and poorly chosen costumes mean some of the female actors are continually adjusting, and the plot-strand of Anansi trying to win the grand prize is almost forgotten in the second act in favour of the lovers’ triangle story, only for it to reappear near the end.
However, there is still a lot to praise in the play: Omer Makessa is a brilliant musician and the all the women actors have great comic timing. Zara May Gabiddon, Chane Paries and Elyssa Richards pull off Downer’s choreography with gusto and it’s wonderful to see a plus size girl star as the romantic lead onstage for once.
Overall, Anansi and the Grand Prize is a ribald, if sometimes cheesy, show that will have you wishing Mas was just around the corner.