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Cobra – Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London

Writer &Director: Charis Agbonlahor

Reviewer: James Bartholomeusz

[rating:3.5]

cobra_lionunicorn2013 has been quite the year for gender politics. In March, Robin Thicke and Pharrell topped charts worldwide with their notorious single ‘Blurred Lines’, its video accused of objectifying models as sex objects and its lyrics of inspiring sexual assault. Later in the spring, the campaign against The Sun’s topless page three feature reached the height of its media profile, provoking debates over whether there is an ‘appropriate’ way for a woman to use her body. And, with less attention focussed on it but with nevertheless grave consequences, a government of affluent white men has continued with public sector cuts in a way that will hit disadvantaged young women hardest, most notably single mothers and those at risk of abuse. There is a lot to be angry about.

Into this scene steps writer and director Charis Agbonlahor’s new play Cobra, bristling with indignation. We follow an entirely believable young Londoner, an aspiring black actress named Shareen, who turns to work as a stripper out of financial desperation. Finding herself with both thespian dreams and a body able to make her a lot of money, trapped in a recession-broken society, she finds herself dipping into an attractive but dangerous sexual underworld.

Agbonlahor exhibits the classic traits of a young writer – great energy combined with lack of finesse – though the latter of these does not pose a problem here. In fact, the crudity that sometimes shows through in the writing is suited to the production: after all, these are starkly relevant topics which deserve to be presented as they are. Moreover, she exhibits a commendable sense of perspective. What could have been two hours of feminist didacticism in other hands is here detached, observational drama. Condemnation comes slowly and, in a way, unexpectedly; the action is allowed to flow, and the audience is allowed to pass their own judgement in their own time.

There is one thing that really mars the production is the staging – more specifically, the most labourious set changes I have ever witnessed. I don’t who was responsible for the set design but it is utterly unsuited to the space of the Lion and the Unicorn. The flimsy, semi-transparent screens used for the background add little to the mis-en-scène and make it incredibly cumbersome to move the actually important props such as the sofa and table. It would only be a minor annoyance, except that the lag it forces on the scene shifts have a serious impact on the drama itself. This might be permissible if one got the sense of it being a deliberate ploy, some sort of Brechtian alienation of reality, but it is not – this is social realism. Particularly given the shorter, episodic nature of the scenes in the first act, the fumbling in-between makes it difficult for any dramatic momentum to be built up.

This aside, the play is very promising, particular in its later stages where even the botched set cannot ruin the tension. The cast is strong without exception, though particular commendations should go to Rose Concencion as Shareen and Richard De Lisle as the enragingly manipulative club-owner Brendan. Agbonlahor has a clear sense of self-identity as a writer – she knows where she situates herself, and her use of Shakespeare is imaginative. I look forward to her future work.

Runs until 26th October

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