A musical adaptation of Mustapha Matura’s 1984 play, Playboy Of The West Indies, this month receives its world premiere at Birmingham Rep as part of Birmingham 2022 Festival. What’s On recently caught up with the show’s composers, Clement Ishmal and Dominique Le Gendre, to find out what audiences can expect... 

Audiences who are ready for sun, sand and calypso should head over to Birmingham Repertory Theatre for new musical Playboy Of The West Indies and be carried to the Caribbean, say the team behind the show. Adapted from Mustapha Matura’s internationally acclaimed 1984 comedy-drama of the same name, which in turn was inspired by JM Synge’s The Playboy Of The Western World, the musical is premiering in Birmingham.

And it will be a real treat, promises Clement Ishmael, who created the score with Dominique Le Gendre, working with Mustapha and director & producer Nicholas Kent, who commissioned the original play.
“Audiences should look forward to being transported into 1950s Trinidad, with the rhythms and the music, the light, the energy,” says Clement. “The play is extremely funny, and I think the music communicates that.” 

The story takes place in the quiet seaside village of Mayaro, where the residents’ sleepy existence is shaken by the arrival of a mysterious, charming but dangerous stranger. Those he meets are quickly drawn into his web. Clement says the musical is very closely based on Mustapha’s play.

“The one change from the play to the musical is the fact that he is now a singer. There was a boat race in the original play, but now it’s a calypso contest - that’s the major difference. But both Dominique and I tried to stick very closely to Mustapha’s words. There are some songs in the show which are just taken right from out of the play. It’s been a really interesting process because the four of us sat down for ages just looking at the places in the play which had emotional highs, where we could put in a song.”

Work began on the musical more than four years ago but had to be halted due to Covid-19. Sadly Mustapha died suddenly in October 2019, before the show could be premiered, but the team were determined to continue with the production as a theatrical memorial to the playwright.

“He was such a part of it,” says Clement. “This was one of his dreams, to make it into a musical, and so now it has become more of a tribute to him and for his family. That is why we are so keen to do it.”

Playboy Of The West Indies forms part of Birmingham 2022 Festival, which runs across the summer to coincide with the Commonwealth Games taking place in the city. Dominique, who is Trinidadian, says the connection is ideal.

“Celebrating the Games in Birmingham is really important because Birmingham has always been a key city as far as the Caribbean community is concerned, and for a lot of Trinidadians who emigrated here in the 1940s and 1950s. It is significant that we are opening here in Birmingham. If we were going to open in a major city, it makes sense that it should be Birmingham.
“Back in the Caribbean, the Commonwealth Games have always been a milestone. It’s something for people in the region to look forward to and to aspire to, so to be part of that celebration reminds us of the richness of the Caribbean.”

The musical fuses calypso tunes with other influences that have played a part in creating Trinidad’s rich heritage.

“Trinidad is a melting pot,” says Dominique, who has previously worked with Shakespeare’s Globe, Talawa Theatre and the Royal Opera House. “Indian is very important in Trinidad because about 40 to 45 per cent of the population is of Indian origin. There’s also a very strong melting pot of religions and spiritual views, so Islam and Hinduism as well as Christianity and the Spiritual Baptists, and there are the African-influenced spiritual religions and belief systems.
“And it’s not just the music which has a very different rhythm - the whole way in which you approach speech is different. The accents are placed differently, there’s a lot more sing-song. People in Trinidad often speak in a very colourful way to illustrate the point, and all of that is in Mustapha’s language.”

This desire for authenticity has influenced the choice of both the music and the casting.
“We’ve tried to make the instrumentation really traditional,” says Clement, whose previous shows have included The Lion King and Five Guys Named Moe. “So it’s all live music with instruments including the cuatro, guitar, flute and clarinet. We have some great musicians in the band, so the music is really vibrant. 
“We also carefully chose the actors because, first of all, they had to be able to do a proper Trinidadian accent. A lot of times when you have plays from the Caribbean, you don’t realise that the accents are very different, and they have to be Trinidadian for this show. The Trinidadian accent is different to the Jamaican or the Antiguan, for example. There’s a music to the Trinidadian language.”

Although the play is set in the Caribbean, everyone will be able to connect with its story, says Clement.
“This is a show for people of all ages. It’s colourful, joyous and full of life. I’m really excited by it, and I’m sure audiences will love it.
“There are characters in the play who will easily be recognised, even if you’re not from that culture, because it’s a universal culture. There’s a universality to the culture because Trinidad has so many influences.
“I’m sure a show like Playboy Of The West Indies will have an appeal to people who don’t normally come to the theatre. It is very theatrical, but the music is so accessible it will encourage new people to come and see it - and hopefully they will stick around for something else.”

Feature by Diane Parks

Playboy Of The West Indies shows at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from Fri 10 June to Sat 2 July