Brighton Festival 2017
Slam poetry champion, Kat Francois, is a regular performer on BBC radio and London’s poetry scene. She brings her critically acclaimed one-woman show to the Brighton Festival, following sell-out performances at The Roundhouse.
Raising Lazarus tells the true story of Francois’ relative Private Lazarus Francois from Grenada, who joined the British West Indies Regiment in 1915 to fight for the Allies in the First World War. Charting this young soldier’s journey from the Caribbean first to the Sussex coast, then on to Egypt and East Africa, Francois shines a light on the thousands of West Indian soldiers who volunteered for King and Country.
The show was first developed in 2009, with the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, as part of its Spoke-Lab series, under the direction of Dawn Reid.
In Raising Lazarus, Francois has created a thought provoking show that is both funny and hard hitting. She seamlessly blends past and present; personal and political; fact and fiction; and the rigidity of a technical presentation with the fluidity and space of poetry and theatre. In doing so, she has created a genre of her own – I found it tricky to categorise the performance when writing this review.
The simple staging supports Francois’s performance. Props – sandbags in one corner, a jingoistic desk in another, the British and Grenadian flags, some crates and a stool – provide the setting for different episodes in the story, and small changes of scene are also marked with shifts in lighting and music. A full sized screen at the back of the stage starts off the performance displaying an old style presentation (think slide projector meets PowerPoint), but later displays vlogs recorded by Francois.
As well as being a gifted writer, Francois is also a charismatic and engaging performer, and is skilled at building intimacy with her audience. She does it subtly, greeting us and establishing a personal connection as the play begins, and then drawing us close into the conversations she has as she deepens her research into Lazarus.
Francois also has a huge talent for capturing the feel of a person in a short phrase, accent, look, swagger or suck of the teeth. It’s here you get a glimpse of her incredible flair for forensic observation and for turning that into theatre, in addition to her prowess as an award-winning wordsmith. By the end, we feel like we’re part of her family, have travelled to the Caribbean with her, accompanied Lazarus as he headed across the Atlantic, and stayed at home with the woman he loved. The performance left me feeling entertained, exhausted, and freshly ashamed of how the British Empire treated its non-British soldiers, and of the racism that still permeates our society.
Francois has created a highly engaging show, and has incredible physical and energetic presence as a performer. However, ACCA is a large venue for a solo show and it felt like even she had to work hard to fill it – that’s the only reason that I could not rate this very original performance as highly recommended.