“Passing Strange” at the Young Vic

Mark Shenton in south London
28 May 2024

The Young Vic has long pivoted itself on the more experimental spectrum of London’s theatrical life. Even when it does musicals – mostly importing them from Broadway – it favours edgier fare, like the wonderful Fun Home in 2018 and the bracing revival of Oklahoma! that entirely blew the cobwebs away from the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein classic that played there in 2022 before transferring to the West End last year.  


The company. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.


Its sole recent outing with an original musical Mandela in 2022 proved to be a rare misstep, both critically and practically, when it met with mostly dismal reviews and cast illness saw over 40 per cent of its run cancelled.  

But now, in presenting the much-belated European premiere of Passing Strange – a musical seen briefly on Broadway in 2008 – it returns to simultaneously more adventurous ground but also an already tested work. It is helmed by Liesl Tommy, a new director both to these shores and the work itself – the first Black woman ever nominated for a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play when she directed Eclipsed on Broadway in 2016.   

The show charts an intensely felt odyssey of personal discovery for an LA-born black musician who journeys from mid-70s California to Amsterdam and Berlin to “find himself”, as they used to say. It is based on its creator Stew’s own life, co-composed with Heidi Rodewald, and created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen (who directed its original production at off-Broadway’s Public Theater). 

I’m not sure that I found his story exactly relatable, even though we all have to try to make sense of our own existence somehow. But if a show is portraying an experience so very different from one’s own, am I even qualified to pass judgement on it? Those thoughts nagged at me throughout, even as I was variously entranced, seduced, and thrilled by parts of its vibrant execution.  

As Giles Terrera (London’s original Hamilton) shadows Stew’s younger self (Keenan Munn-Francis) through his travels and travails, from rejecting his strict church upbringing to embracing drugs and the joys of European performance art, there’s a lot to absorb and delight, as well as to baffle and confuse, at least for me. Perhaps it is easier to try see the whole project as a kind of performance art, and just let the experience wash over you without trying to follow the finer points of how and why things are progressing as they do. 

There’s no doubting the commitment or craft of the outstanding cast – also featuring Rachel Adedeji as mother to the lead character – with Renee Lamb, David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson, and Caleb Roberts presenting versatile vignettes of a host of supporting characters.  

There’s a rock-concert vibe to the staging, with an electrifying onstage four-player band (frequently supplemented by the actors who also play instruments). This is as much gig-theatre as musical theatre. The high wide stage of the Young Vic – configured end-on this time – becomes a frequent explosion of colour in the sets and costumes of Ben Stones, explosively lit by Richard Howell.  

Like last year’s import of A Strange Loop to the Barbican, this is less typical Broadway fare than we are used to – but it is definitely worth exposing yourself to it.