You can see how it might be tricky for a guy like Jonzi D. to accept an MBE: there’s plenty about the British honours system that might catch in the throat of an anti-establishment hip-hop theatre-maker of Afro-Caribbean descent. And you can see how this conundrum might make an interesting starting place for a piece of theatre. Unfortunately, however, The Letter: To Be or to MBE simply doesn’t deliver.
It takes itself too seriously, for a start. It’s hard to sympathise with someone wringing their hands about how successful they are, and Jonzi D. doesn’t help himself by presenting this one-man show with barely a hint of self-deprecation. He might have gotten away with such a po-faced stance if the arguments and counter arguments he offers—through a series of colourful characters he encounters on a visit back to the East London neighbourhood where he grew up—had a little more to them. Rarely, however, does Jonzi go beyond the most obvious of reasoning, making for a rather shallow take on what could have been a juicy topic.
There are entertaining and insightful moments on offer. Not all the characters succeed, but Jonzi D. is surprisingly persuasive as a local matriarch unhappy with the idea of him refusing the honour. An anonymous financial type—cleverly conjured up with a pair of gloves and a collar and tie flung over the back of a chair—is spot on too.
The Letter is at its best, however, when Jonzi D., an experienced MC and poet, lets loose with wordplay, dropping the characters and letting himself shine through. It’s a shame it doesn’t happen more often.