made in

Made in (India) Britain

Coventry Belgrade B2


The wonderfully talented Rinkoo Barpaga is both the author and the performer of this essentially One-Man show. Rinkoo is profoundly deaf and uses British Sign Language (BSL). But what a character. Long-suffering. But buoyant. Determined from teenage years to rise above any adversity.

Utterly inspired, so endlessly inspiring. He has also explored documentary film, experimented with ‘street photography’ charting evidence and examples of "similarity or difference in minority groups”; and believes above all, he says revealingly and disarmingly, it is ‘my humane duty to “shine a mirror up” to social and political injustices, through performance, comedy, documentary and written story-telling’.

What a personality. What a mesmerising actor. And what a masterly writer. Rinkoo was brought up and lives in the West Midlands, so we can take special pride in him. I think he is one of the finest ethic minority solo exponents since I reviewed for the New Statesman a breathtaking photographic exhibition (at the Garman-Ryan art collection in Walsall) by Vanley Burke – who himself lived first in Handsworth; his photo archive is still held by the City of Birmingham – drawing out from the UK’s black diaspora just the same sort of social world as Barpaga aspires to here. Both phenomenal artists. Gripping: pillars of excellence.

Made in (India) Britain – in reality the title shows India crossed out – is autobiographical: a fascinating entertainment showcasing the ingredients that have made up Barpaga’s life, hopes, disappointments and yes, successes. He has encountered judgmentalism, discrimination, intolerance, pure racism – even if certainly not everywhere.

A chubby, amiable figure, he holds the stage effortlessly. All the more remarkable to an average audience because though he can utter sounds (comically), he cannot speak a word. That task falls to actor Mathias André, a splendid speaker delivering from front side stage, who ‘voices’ Barpaga so as to back up, interpret, explain and underline every detail of his mimed performance: in its imaginative manner reminding me of that legendary French mime, Marcel Marceau.

ade duo

The brilliance of Rinko’s show owes much, naturally, to director Tyrone Huggins - who has himself excelled in one-man theatre, abetted doubtless by dramaturg Daniel Bailey (who is currently Associate Director of the Bush Theatre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush) – both distinguished, already a sort of black theatre grandees. Even a great actor (Olivier was a classic example of this) needs steering, advice, warnings about what will work (best) and what might not.

But Barpaga is such a refined and shrewd performer you might not think he needs directing at all. Lots of intriguing allusions flit by. We hear passing, but tangible references to Winson Green prison (next to Rinkoo’s family home). To his grandparents’ and mother’s African/Kenyan origin (his father being from India); to Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech (in fact an aftercomment, an allusion, in the near-final paragraph of his April 1968 speech in the Midland (Burlington) Hotel, Birmingham: ‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.

Powell was quoting the Sibyl, or seer, from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI. Some scholars have queried his accuracy, or interpretation, sometimes – not always - or imprecise or spurious reasons. But to his great credit Barpaga quoted a bit more: ‘One day in this country the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’; this inclusion is typical of the thoroughness of his own approach to his whole story staged here at the Belgrade.

Needless to say, the essence of Rinkoo’s story is expressed in the visual. And here he proved himself an absolute, a wonderful, master. The range of his expressions (which married at each point with Mathias André ‘s impeccably matched narration), verged on the miraculous. Every part of him was brought into play, always to fit the character of that moment perfectly: his use of his mouth, a laugh, a grimace, a scowl, eyes, eyebrows (almost eyelashes - flickering, blinking, staring ominously; indeed his whole visage, preening, doubting; fingers, hands waving, clenched , signalling; subtly or wildly gesturing. He can be deeply serious in a crisis, or a hoot munching a non-existent burger.

The Lighting (Tom Clutterbuck) was not complicated, but switching between full stage and a circle spot directly down on Rinkoo, every time an asset to close-up characterisation, still worked a treat. There was one point at which a pattern of sorts was beamed down frontstage, but I can’t remember another such: hence I’m not sure why the idea wasn’t developed on other occasions, but it didn’t matter. Barpaga needed no help.

His enumeration of Primary or lower Secondary school kids who shared his taxi was sensitive and always funny. ‘Mole’ (was it?), Eddie, Christopher. The last a Rastafarian’s son, cross-eyed; another Jamaican, one ‘Asian like men (BUT??) Pakistani’. Learning not to be scared or disincentivised: realising these black and Brum-born kids were ‘just like me’. Invites to Deaf Club, Deaf Football team. All positive discoveries for a boy rendered shy and to an unwanted degree stand-offish through a deep diffidence. But then ‘I found my tribe.’

Scary moments. Being on a bus and drawn by his mates into a ‘fucking Paki’-bashing area riddled with racist skinheads, or others being asserting in those days loyalty to the National Front, with Nazi swastikas daubing them.

And then, a turnaround: a plane to India, where at last ‘I felt free’; whereas in England it was always ‘no…no, you can’t do that’. But also a negative experience: threatened by Kalashnikov-wielding armed Sikh militants, much like Hamas these days. ‘I…I…I’m a Sikh’, and giving a name with Singh in it. And surviving - unlike others.

But recalling then a very different horror: General Dwyer’s 1919 Amritsar (Jallianwala Bagh) massacre, close to the most sacred Golden Temple, ‘in which over 1500 were killed’: his main fury – and pity, and anguish – aimed at the British dragooning Indian Army regulars themselves – Gurkhas, Sikhs, Frontier troops - to shoot, kill and wound such vast numbers.

But then from the negative back to the positive. A ghastly, humbling job as a cleaner at Aston Villa FC. Then suddenly being discovered. Being given a role with TV, and despatched north to ‘expensive’ Newcastle upon Tyne. Mixed feelings about there, but then disillusion: somehow ‘just standing still.’

Initial hope, then disappointment, gloom. Ambition. Trying hard to make an unlikely impact. At last, making one. Rinkoo’s range of gestures, and stances, and sittings, multiplied: creeping, strolling, strutting, swaggering, running on the spot. Simply standing still. Starting a (non-existent) motorbike; lolling, relaxing, stretching on the one chair on mid-stage, or off it. Laughing, mocking, joking (an hilarious take-off of girls flirting for the camera); aching, agonised, resenting; learning to exercise self-control and restraint.

It didn’t end there. A job interview (in London), nervous repeated crossing of legs, fear, apprehension; awe, admiration; optimism. He pulled it off - got the London job. ‘They chose me for my looks!’ The relief of finding urban sign language there: ‘the language of my culture!’ And finally, arrival, in 2014: film-making - Double Discrimination, a masterly, beautifully considered, thought-provoking half-hour Documentary about racism in the Deaf community, about being put down, pushed around, not knowing how best to respond.,

This highlights one of Rinkoo’s main themes and tenets: if you suffer discrimination, never simply suffer and put up with it. Stand up for yourself. Stand up for the principle.

Where appropriate, to turn the other cheek; yet where apt, to fight back. This whole play is an immensely intelligent exploration, at times moving, at others plain entertaining: skilled a stand-up comic, Supported by the British Sign Language Development Trust, quite frankly Made in (India) Britain is a masterpiece. Worth catching if it comes your way.

Roderic Dunnett


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