REVIEW: A Strange Loop @ Barbican Theatre

July 25, 2023

Review by Eric Page

There’s a lot of hype around A Strange Loop, its meta’ness, its centring of black, queer, fat experiences, and its vaunted shift from Broadway to London, holding a Pulitzer and latest Tony Award-winning Best Musical. It lives up to the hype and effortlessly surpasses the publicity and cant, using originality wit and tenderness to offer up an almost unique theatrical experience wrapped in a comforting familiar style. “I’m a musical,” it whispers; “it’s alright come sit and watch us sing”, but the characters are all self-aware, they know they are in a story; they understand they are “outsiders” and speak about how they are in this fictional story, they also know, in vertiginous meta’ness, that they are all figments of the writer’s imagination.


Meet Usher played by Kyle Ramar Freeman: a black, queer writer writing a musical about a black, queer writer writing a musical about a black, queer writer…

A Strange Loop exposes a young black artist grappling with desires, identity and instincts he both loves and loathes. Hell-bent on breaking free of his own self-perception, Usher wrestles with the thoughts in his head, brought to life on stage by a hilarious, straight-shooting ensemble.

I’d read people complain about it being too American, but we see a lot of American culture on our stages and screens and its contextualised swiftly. So glorious to see so many black queer and global majority actors giving such superb performances. With a diversity of gender and masculine presentations given ironic, deeply camp flourishes in a fantastically funny way. Camp can be so dangerous in the right hands. This is an ensemble cast who excel, in voice, movement, acting and engagement, playing the whole team of characters between them, they are given huge range to impress, and impress each and every one of them do.

We lose the fourth wall in the first few lines, we are here on stage, in the now, but also in the mind of Usher, who, as we know, is writing about writing about writing about himself. O! He contains multitudes, many mansions in his house, all haunted by voices from his psyche. They are cruel, catty, sassy and funny, always funny. The six Voices form a Greek chorus of shifting sassy shade, folding themselves in and out of the action, layering observation, opinion and some devastating throw away lines in a blizzard of caustic verbal confetti.


My white fragility was palpable, my discomfort with the language used on stage, shocked out of my British politeness default settings (even through my bold queer lens) and feeling challenged, but seen. It’s gloriously unapologetic, it don’t care what I think, it don’t need my approval, it don’t want my regret, it’s unremorseful, and probably the most thrilling musical theatre I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s bold and tender, shocking, and unutterably sweet, I ranged between wanting to cry and welling up with anger. I was moved.

The ever-moving cast dance across the stage with some wonderful choreography from Raja Feather Kelly, there’s not a move unweighted with meaning, I’d like to watch the whole thing again just to focus on the dancers, the music is not as complex as the plot and Rona Siddiqui serves us up some pretty generic light R&B, pop musical themes but still catchy and without cynicism.

Sometimes the drum sets were too emphatic and I lost lines from the quick fire repartee on stage. Jen Schriever’s simple lighting is superb, using the depth of the Barbican staging to change geometric spaces and pull focus on intimacies, moral grandstanding and full on holy-rolling madness working in close tandem with Arnulfo Maldonado’s subtle set designs which slide in and out, offering effective evocations of theatre, apartment, home and church… The reveal of the church is a theatrical eye opener!


And then every now and again, as a good musical must, we get moments of calm reflections, moments where the audience are shifted and the mood steps up. A chance meeting with an audience member up from Florida brings full focus onto Usher’s problem, how to write about the hard stuff in life, family, love, death and wanting to be seen for what they are. The tender emotional shifts of this musical are done with grace.

A Strange Loop deconstructs what it is to be black, holds queerness up to the light, takes men on men sex apart leaf by shinning leaf, picks at intimacies’ scabs, breaks down walls around fatness, cuts family ties with laser precision, explodes faith with microscopic forensic relentless exactness. Oh its take down/shake down of evangelical Pentecostal prejudice is done with such amazing detail, movement, voice, biblical verses, charm, it’s spot on. I’d urge any of us queers, who spent any time under the cruel yoke of faith to go watch A Strange Loop, as an act of rebuking therapy. It was joyous. It never stops being funny. The humour underpins this musical from touching to cruel and savage, we are always offered the opportunity of a laugh.


Usher’s explorations and reasoning about the sex he’s having, or not having, are placed in the queerest contexts: a sexual health clinic, dating apps and a hook up based around status and power play. A Strange Loop looks at the pressures on gay men, the toxic internet culture, the brutal interactions on apps, the erosion of boundaries in the pursuit of sex and the conflation of physical sexual contact with intimacy. It does it with a playful frankness that both shocks and makes you giggle. Usher sings of the hurt and regret he feels after a disrespectful hook up where he is demeaned and fetishised because of his size and race. This insight into ‘boundaries’ (the title of the song) being necessary to protect himself, emotionally, professionally and sexually moves the action along.

The interactions with Usher’s family are seriously funny, a slice of American black working class life, his family seem to reflect and use the names from The Lion King (the musical that Usher is working at, many layers up in this meta narrative). Each family member is given the light and mic, his parents have stand out moments which allow us to see their own lives in perspective, there’s no charity here though. Is it happening, is it memory, is Usher puppetting his family thought their trauma? We move on never really knowing what we’re looking at, but understanding we are always in Usher’s mind.


The raw decades of frustrations, despair and anger that pour of Usher as he confronts his father about his queerness brought a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. Addressing his mother’s refusal to accept him as queer through a full-on Gospel Horror Show of Condemnation, Censure and Biblical damnation was breath-taking, a truly jaw dropping piece of theatre, writing and staging. When the full stage is revealed it’s a real WTF moment!

See the full cast and creative team here 

His mother’s deep love for him, entwined with her unbreachable religious homophobia, is brought to a head here, with his mother’s voices asking ‘why did you write me into the show this way if you loved me?’. His devastating response is that he wrote them that way because he loves them. There are many complex scenes with his mother: the struggle and damage of love and bigotry unresolved is given a compassionate but ruthless examination, we really really hope his mother has finally understood and accepted Usher. This reminded me of Torch Song Trilogy where Arnold confronts his mother about her disregard of his grief after the death of his partner.

At its core, it’s about a clever boy trying to make sense of a world which seems to deny him dignity, visibility, or respect at every turn. It’s about his struggles to find a place to carve out a space of love, of unconditional acceptance and basic humanity and it’s a full throated, 100% queer, glass breaking high note torrent of scalding camp rage, being allowed to run, lava hot out of a brilliant sensitive mind, rebuking those of faith in their own glossolalic tongues, reaching out across visual difference of skin colour, size, intellect and wealth to connect us all.

It ends without ending, does the Strange Loop continue, or are we watching the actual ending – the show’s success, from Broadway to London, are we outside or part of the ending, happening now? This last flourish and tease with theatrical expectations is just lovely.

A Strange Loop is different, it asked us to allow our difference to define us, it demands of us to see difference as normal. If we dare. It offers us hope in the face of despair, and it’s a radical hope.

I loved it, I’m not sure I understood it completely, the textures and experiences on offer are too different from my own lived experience, its meta’ness shifts it as you watch it, it’s mercurial, it supported my development of racial stamina, making me understand queer black experiences with clarity, and I connected with it on many many levels. I left confused, thrilled, and utterly delighted to have seen it.

It also passed my ‘was it a good musical test’ where you hear the audience hum or sing the songs as they leave the auditorium, and on the way down to the Tube.

I’d recommend you go see it, seriously go see it, it’s the best new musical I’ve seen in years!

A Strange Loop is at the Barbican until September 9. For more info or to book tickets follow this link to the Barbican Theatre website