Writer: Arinzé Kene
Director: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Arinzé Kene’s storytelling, focussing on North London black communities, seems to grow richer with each new work. His self-performed Misty went all the way to the West End and now his latest begins its journey, looking likely to stir things up in sedate Richmond.
In the opening scenes of Little Baby Jesus, the stage resembles a circular playpen, with overgrown toddlers jumping around, gambolling and creating havoc. Three adolescent school kids tell their coming of age stories, learning that “we don’t grow up on our birthdays, it’s at random experiences…” and, in charting a path that leads from harmless teenage rivalry to senseless violence, the writer hits a nerve that is particularly sensitive in our inner cities at the present time.
Rugrat (Khai Shaw) is the class joker and Joanne (Rachel Nwokoro) is a queen of sass. Both wear their school uniforms dishevelled as if emblems of mild rebellion. In contrast, Kehinde (Anyebe Godwin) is neat and tidy, perhaps aiming to impress the mixed race girlfriend to which he aspires or perhaps hiding timidly in the shadow of a twin sister who can run like a female Usain Bolt. The stories chronicle their everyday lives: a ball kicked over a wall and not retrieved, clashes with pupils from a rival school, a“pilgrimage” up north and so on.
The great joy of the play springs from Kene’s sharp-eyed, witty observations and the lyricism of his descriptive writing. As performed here, the play moves from hysterically funny to tear-jerkingly moving in an instant, with comedy, harsh reality and allegory fitting together seamlessly.
Director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s exhilarating production is synchronised beautifully, but there is a strong sense that he has given the three superb actors licence to stamp their own personalities on their characters. The result feels natural and unforced, Kene’s dialogue tapping into the language of everyday life while still elevating it to a higher plane. The simplicity of the staging adds clarity to the stories, enhanced by strong lighting effects, designed by Bethany Gupwell. A large bright halo that hovers above the stage seems to confirm the play’s theme that the characters’ fates are in the hands of forces beyond their control.
Unavoidably, racism rears its ugly head in the stories, but Kene does not dwell for long on negatives. His play rides the highs and lows of the years of teenage discovery and arrives assuredly at a life affirming destination.
Runs until 18 November 2019 | Image: Ali Wright