Review: Matthew Herbert’s Brexit Big Band – The State Between Us @ Royal Court Theatre (London; Friday 29th March 2019)

 It was scheduled for and supposed to go on scene on the night when the UK should have left Europe, but it didn’t go as expected. Well, the show was regularly featured on the evening of 29th March, but it was Brexit (as we all know) that turned out to be chronically suffering from some “minor technical issues”, dragging itself into a prolonged nothing.

However, Matthew Herbert and his dozens of stage partners (the Brexit Big Band) didn’t lose their social and artistic momentum, nor even their irony, and still came up with a revised but not (politically) corrected version of their original project for The State Between Us, which was also recently released as a studio album.

Set in motion two years ago, when the infamous Article 50 was triggered, The State Between Us ripened into a genuine reaction and musical commentary to the Brexit madness. The performance is at times heartfelt and at times a rational take, in music, on everything that has happened in the last three years as a consequence of that infamous referendum.

Show after show, the project flourished and grew, following a tight-scheduled tour around Europe. Matthew Herbert, Peter Wraight (Big Band Conductor), Esmeralda Conde Ruiz (Choral Music Director) and their collaborators welcomed on board new ideas, opinions, doubts, fears and hopes expressed by the audience, with more than a thousand artists involved (among them Hejira‘s frontwoman Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne). So much so that, The State Between Us eventually turned into a reflection on being British and how the UK is seen through European lenses.

As a composer and performer, Matthew Herbert is not new in surprising and amazing his audience, employing the everyday life and its habits, gestures and objects. In his mind and keyboard, anything can become music, and music is in everything; that’s how he set Brexit in notes. From rhythmically trashing newspapers (unsurprisingly, they were all copies of the Daily Mail) to flying out paper planes across the hall with thoughts about Brexit written on them, and putting in music the Article 50’s words, the creativity of the Kent-born musician goes beyond borders and barriers. That’s how The State Between Us unfolds itself as a multifarious performance. Dance music going side by side with soul, and orchestral and choral arrangements together with funky ones liven up the opera-like show and inevitably lead the audience to stand up and dance the last notes of the event away.

And indeed, just like a staged and musical portrait of the current UK political circus, The State Between Us is also an explosive, funny, incoherent and loud-mouthed show. The difference with the Westminster “Big Top” is that, on the Royal Court Theatre stage, there were remarkably talented artists, consciously leading the performance on those tracks. Actually, another difference is the fact that The State Between Us is a positively engaging spectacle, in which the audience is invited to reflect on “universal” themes and be actively part of a cultural, as much as political, discourse.

Photo ©: Christian O G Svenningsen