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Review: Princess and the Hustler at Liverpool Playhouse ***1/2

Racial tensions simmer both inside and outside the home in this vibrant but uncomfortable family drama from Eclipse Theatre Company.

Nominally set against the backdrop of the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, when campaigners took to the streets to protest the city bus company’s refusal to employ Black or Asian crews, Chinonyerem Odimba’s tale focusses on the struggles of the complicated and somewhat dysfunctional James family.

At its heart is 10-year-old ‘Princess’ - carefree and oddly babyish and naïve for her age – who dreams of being crowned Weston-Super-Mare Beauties of the West winner, dreams fuelled by the family’s blousy, bluff, but good-hearted neighbour Margot (Jade Yourell).

Princess (Kudzai Sitima) lives cheek by jowl with her older brother Junior (Fodo Simbo) and careworn lone mother (Donna Berlin) who works her fingers to the bone to keep food on the table and clothes on their back, even if there’s no cash left over for presents under the tiny sliver of a Christmas tree.

But when her charming but feckless chancer husband, the ‘hustler’ of the title, appears on the doorstep years after doing a moonlight flit, and with a mixed-race Liverpool love child in tow, the family’s carapace, carefully-constructed to shield it against the world, is irrevocable cracked.

Princess (Kudzai Sitima) and Mavis (Donna Berlin). Photos by The Other Richard

The drama is at its strongest and most affecting in its chronicling of the shifting family dynamics and their fallout – the frustration of son Junior who aspires to more than the indolent example set by his father, the diminishment of Princess’s carefree joy as she learns hard lessons about people’s real attitudes to the appearances of others.

Berlin is tremendous as Mavis, the matriarch who has created a survival suit of armour, and who we watch as she tentatively allows herself to unbuckle and shed it piece by piece.

Seun Shote has the challenge of generating sympathy for the jive-talking Wendell the hustler, a man let down on one level by the system, but also at a core level by his own nature. Charm or not, it’s hard to warm to him as a character - not helped by the often-impenetrable patois.

As for the bus boycott, it simmers away in the background during the second half but feels more of a plot device than an integral part of the action, even with a community chorus of protesters waving placards and fists at the front of the stage.

But of course the wider themes its raises remain, sadly, pertinent for the times we are currently living through.

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