Vivienne Kennedy reviews Princess & The Hustler, an Eclipse Theatre Company, Bristol Old Vic and Hull Truck Theatre co-production, playing in the Weston Studio at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 23 February. 

Kudzai Sitima, Fode Simbo and Emily Burnett in Princess & The Hustler

Kudzai Sitima, Fode Simbo and Emily Burnett in Princess & The Hustler. Credit - The Other Richard.

Part of Revolution Mix, an Eclipse movement spearheading the largest ever delivery of new Black British stories, Princess & The Hustler puts you through the wringer, before lifting you up with an ending nothing short of joyous.

Set in 1963, it tells the story of Phyllis ‘Princess’ James, a cheeky 10-year-old who lives with her mum and elder brother, a budding photographer and activist.

Despite her tender age, which offers little protection against 1960s reality, Princess is becoming aware that being black and beautiful probably means never achieving her ambition of winning the Weston-super-Mare Beauty Contest.

At the same time, her long-lost father, Wendell, The Hustler in the title, has returned, bringing with him her half-sister, throwing the family into disarray. He’s just in time to take part in Bristol’s bus boycott, a civil rights campaign that saw the colour bar lifted and influenced the 1965 Race Relations Act.

Kudzai Sitima as Princess in Princess & The Hustler

Kudzai Sitima as Princess. Credit - The Other Richard.

The cast of seven, led by Kudzai Sitima, who is utterly believable as Princess, is boosted by a community chorus, recruited recently via social media. Some of them become placard-carrying protesters, others take part in the beauty pageant finale, strutting their stuff as Beyoncé demands to know who runs the world.

Princess & The Hustler is perfectly suited to the intimate setting of Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio. The audience’s reactions to what’s happening on stage are both audible and visible, whether that’s gasps of shock, roaring laughter, or the subtle lifting of a tissue to dab an eye that’s suddenly become a tad wet.

It also means the cast are very aware of any VIPs watching the show and as I left, I heard how much it meant to them that Paul Stephenson and Roy Hackett, the leaders of the Bristol Bus Boycott, were there.

The show tells an important story and does it justice. It will provoke thoughts and if, like me, you are white, it will probably make you check your privilege, which is never a bad thing.

Related

Princess & The Hustler at Bristol Old Vic
Performance
Princess & The Hustler at Bristol Old Vic

Meet Princess. A cheeky 10-year-old with a plan to win the Weston-Super-Mare Beauty Contest.

Bristol Old Vic Theatre
Theatre
Bristol Old Vic Theatre

Built in 1766, Bristol Old Vic is the oldest continuously working theatre in the English speaking world, and remains a place of joy, discovery and adventure to this day.