Writer: Arinzé Kene
Director: Omar Elerian
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Arinzé Kene’s 2017 play good dog established the writer as an astute commentator on modern urban tensions, with his narrator positioned on a balcony above a busy street, observing the comings and goings beneath him. Here, the writer gets down and dirty, rummaging around working-class London as if to search for its soul. Kene himself plays the pivotal character who is a playwright named Arinzé Kene.
The production is transferring from the Bush Theatre into a West End more used to drawing room comedies and fantasy musicals and, probably, it has never seen anything quite like it before. It is not so much that Kene thinks outside the box, more that he refuses to acknowledge that any box exists. It is part play in monologue form and part cabaret, featuring music, poetry, physical comedy and so on. Occasions when the show threatens to descend into anarchy or even grind to a halt simply add to the essential rawness of it all.
A dichotomy forms, showing us Kene the writer with a mission to represent life and Kene the man trying to live it. The former strives to create something real, but detractors accuse him of selling out by writing “a n****r play” or “urban safari drama s**t”. Pitching ideas to agents, he comes up against the remnants of racism that linger on in the liberal arts establishment.
Kene the man meets aggression on a night bus, copes with every day relationship issues and gets chased by police, the latter story being related to hilarious effect with a brilliantly executed punchline. Omar Elerian’s production moves with the rhythms of Kene’s writing, expanding it with projected city images. Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod provide musical backing.
Passionate and compassionate, vulnerable and aggressive, humorous and sorrowful, Kene’s moods and the tempo of his delivery change in an instant. A part-spoken torch song which builds into a tormented lament, could be followed by an angry diatribe, with Kene, metaphorically and literally, pumping up the balloon until it explodes.
Kene has the leading role, but London itself warrants equal billing. Repeatedly, it is described as a city creature, with transport routes being its veins and arteries, blood cells its people and viruses its attackers. The most significant virus is seen as gentrification or “modern day colonisation” which drives working people from the city and leaves Kene unable to get a simple cup of tea or coffee. His argument is not new, but his fervour and acerbic wit give it fresh strength.
The show is a rag bag of ideas and theatre forms which should never work but somehow does and, at around two hours (including interval) it feels too short, There are no pigeon holes into which Misty would slot, no single words or phrases that can describe it. Kene could be a force for greater understanding or a force for change, but let’s just settle for calling him a force of nature.
Runs until 20 October 2018 | Image: Contributed