Dressed in shabby clownish costumes, they are trapped within a minstrel show. Their dialogue centres on Bones hustling for quarters, while all that Tambo wants is to get some sleep.
At first reminiscent of the opening sequences of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, their often very funny interaction gradually becomes about racism. Their profane language is liberally peppered with the N-word; as a queazy liberal who would never say it, I was interested to see its use caused much amusement among the predominantly black Stratford East audience.
That a slightly overlong section works is due to the sheer brilliance of the two actors. As Tambo, the prolific Rhashan Stone (All About Eve, Our Town, Richard III et al), can bring tonnes of meaning to a simple cynical sideways look; playwright and actor Daniel Ward (War of the Roses, The Amen Corner) transitions Bones from a simple buffoon to a much more complex, ultimately scary, character.
Where Part One was the past (minstrel shows, where white performers blacked up, are no more), Part Two, which follows immediately, is entitled ‘Tambo & Bones – The Escape Tour’. The two characters are now bling-covered rappers and again you have to marvel at the presence and versatility of Stone and Ward.
Rhashan Stone (Tambo) and Daniel Ward (Bones) in Tambo & Bones at Stratford East. Photo: The Other Richard
Still the split between the two characters remains: Tambo wants to use this far-reaching new medium to bring home the realities of racism; Bones just wants to wallow in their newfound fame and fortune.
Whereas in New York, where Tambo & Bones opened off-Broadway in the winter of 2019, the play ran without an interval, the London production expertly directed by Matthew Xia, AD of Actors Touring Company, introduces an interval at this point.
Part Three is set 400 years from now. Now the two actors come as themselves, and the story they tell is enacted by two white humanoid robots (Jaron Lammens and Dru Cripps). With a race war on, the robots are Tambo’s way of using technology to eliminate all white people.
The finale is gruesome and unexpected, and the play’s message is unclear – to this viewer at least.
Perhaps the point is that theatre, or metatheatre in this case, can provide a powerful starting point for discussions on racism: what it does, how it manifests itself, how it can be wiped out. At the end the performers don't come out to acknowledge applause; rather, a voice-over announcement suggests the audience might wish to stay in the theatre a little longer to meditate on what they’ve seen.
|Tambo & Bones, Stratford East review
|Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, E15 1BN | MAP
16 Jun 23 – 15 Jul 23, 19:30 Sat mats at 14:30 Dur.: 2 hours inc one interval
|Click here to book