PlayFight – Pleasance Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Christina Alagaratnam

Director: Leian John-Baptiste

It starts with an ending, or the possibility of one. Landry Adelard’s TJ staggers in and collapses, a knife to his chest, only to have a conversation with the spirit of his dead former best friend, Kai, as his life force starts to slip away.

From there, the action progresses back to when the two Londoners were young teens, hanging out with their best friend Zara (Carla Garratt), squabbling about chips and dreaming of playing Fifa on the PlayStation at the weekend.

The transformation between adult and boy is most pronounced in Iain Gordon’s Kai. In ghostlike form he is sagacious and calm; as a teenager, he is in perpetual, nervous motion, ever deferring to the more confident TJ.

As the boys hang out, their discussion turns to what they will do after school, and the parental pressure they feel under. There are hints of their growing awareness of a system stacked against them – Kai receives a B for the chemistry project he did in tandem with a white classmate, who got an A – as well as the ever-present threat of gang violence. An unseen “Jonah” casts a shadow, being the sort of person who aggregates young men into his crew – the manifestation of a path that neither lad wants to go down.

Garratt impresses as Zara, an outsider who in her teenage years has become aware of how odd it is for her best and only friends to be boys. There is already a sense of her pushing away, of growing up – or at least, acknowledging that they are all growing up – faster than her mates.

The play’s inciting moment, the point at which this childhood idyll starts to crumble, comes when Adelard’s charismatic TJ starts teasing Kai about which one of them Zara fancies. The needling becomes rough-housing, and when Zara attempts to get them to stop she feels unsafe around her friends for the first time.

The fallout of the fight, captured on the school’s CCTV, brings a subtle suggestion that if TJ and Kai were not black, their punishment might not be so severe. The different paths each of the trio takes subsequently is driven home most effectively by a quietly impressive transformation by Gordon. The nervy teen becomes more solid, but colder, under Jonah’s authority. His mental health, and the actions he takes subsequently, are portrayed with gentle sensitivity.

While Garratt’s character is far less developed than those of her male castmates, the emotional bridge she forms between the young men holds Christina Alagaratnam’s script together. Together with Adelard, they portray two young people never quite able to leave behind the world into which they were born.

As events come all circle to the in media res opening of the play, the same scenes are now heavy with the personalities of the three characters and the weight of the burdens each carries. This is no It’s a Wonderful Life, with an angel showing a good man how important he is; instead, an inevitability about how life unfolds does not mean that TJ’s story is yet over.

Producers Orisun Productions are open about the issues PlayFight was created to address, of the sort of inequities and differences of treatment that young Black people, especially boys, face and how much that has to bear on their adult lives. The play is more subtle about these themes than publicity materials might suggest, but it is all the better for that: by not being heavy-handed, it provides a firmer base for discussion and, hopefully, for change.

Continues until 3 June 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Impressively issue-driven

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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