Hoxton Street – Hoxton Hall, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writers: Oladipo Agboluaje and Lil Warren from a concept by Karena Johnson.

Director: Karena Johnson

Hoxton Street is developed from an imaginative idea by Karena Johnson for community theatre. It is part of Hoxton Hall’s #Class season. Written by Oladipo Agboluaje, it is presented as live soap opera, using the device of four short episodes (performed individually over the last month) which are now brought together to create an entire evening’s drama. Most of the actors are seasoned soap opera performers and there’s the canny twist of letting the audience choose which story line they want to see in the final quarter.

The action takes place in Hoxton itself, and the frequent references to local places clearly delights the audience, as does the banter about south and north Londoners. One strand concerns an upwardly mobile couple, Shania and Denton Wilson, moving into a new flat. The apartment building itself is so posh it has a concierge, as pushy Shania (Tracy Anne Green) likes to mention. But placid, put-upon Denton (Kojo Attah), once lived around here and clearly has A Past.

You can’t have too many aspirational characters in a soap, however, if you want to create a stable community. There’s Northern Irish Zachary (Alan Turkington) who runs a failing record shop. He’s a likeable character, but not given much back story. The record shop seems a handy, if unlikely, meeting place for the other characters, there being no Queen Vic or Kathy’s café in this story.

At the heart of the drama is the matriarchal Maynard family. Lively Josie Maynard (an ebullient Helen Pearson) keeps the family together, bringing up her two grandchildren after their father, her son Tony, goes to prison. As the story begins, Tony (Nathan Welsh) has just reappeared – cue fresh tensions within the family. Meanwhile, Josie’s daughter Ella (Hannah Traylen) is in love with Okhan Bhatur, who runs a falafel van. Okhan (Merch Husey) adores Ella, but is afraid to tell his father, the domineering Mr Bhatur (a suitably sleazy Cosh Omar). Meanwhile, Josie’s smoker’s cough is, in the way of soaps, significant.

Normal soap operas, of course, can usually take for granted the audience’s familiarity with the characters, but trying to set up the premise for a new one, as Hoxton Street does, and play it all out in one day, makes for a lot of unevenness. The show can’t effectively deal with larger social issues, and the set-up necessarily involves a lot of exposition. Local gossip Monica (Carol Moses) acts as chorus-cum-pantomime character, regularly popping up to recap the plot.

To be honest, the first half of the play feels slow. The (fictional) power cut early on seems an unintended metaphor about the play’s pace. It often lacks power, and overall the piece needs much more vigorous direction. There are too many gaps while characters come on and off stage, and several pauses pauses which suggest lost lines rather than Pinteresque pauses. Much of this will doubtless improve in the course of the show’s run.

The second half of the show, however, is much tighter and there are lots of surprises in store. The appearance of great-grandmother Linda and the reappearance of the little grandchildren gives a sudden depth to the piece. Janet Amsden, who plays Linda this week, effortlessly conveys a sense of the true values of Hoxton.

 Runs until 28 May 2022

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