Shadow Kingdoms  – Theatre503, London

Writer: Berri George

Director: Adam Dattis

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

So acceptable is street art now that if we were to grab our spray cans and head off to paint the walls of Shoreditch, the chances are we won’t get arrested. However, it wasn’t always so safe and Shadow Kingdoms, set in the early 2000s, is concerned with street art’s darker strain – graffiti.

Rather than the political stencils of Banksy or the lonely figures of Stik, who are two of London’s most famous street artists, Mute and Sketchpad want to cover tube trains with words. They want to ‘paint steel’ and ‘wallpaper the city.’ However, these vibrant ambitions become lost in an increasingly conventional play, which, ultimately, is more about social class than it is about art.

Schoolboy Sketchpad is so impressed with Mute’s tagging that he follows her around the city. When they finally meet he shows her the designs that he wants to daub on the side of train carriages. Reluctantly she offers him graffiti lessons, not realising that these will soon turn into life lessons. As she shows him the ropes, an unlikely friendship develops between them.

Jorden Myrie is wonderful as the hyperactive Sketchpad, embodying him with a teenage awkwardness that is simultaneously sweet and annoying. On press night, he handled a wardrobe malfunction as deftly as possible while still keeping in character. As Mute, Katie Warren is equally as convincing and she brings some hard-edged vulnerability to the role, allowing us to see that she’s not ‘as tough as old boots’, as she claims. Their acting is so strong that their oddball relationship is very believable, and they both unpack their backstories with sensitivity.

But the acting can’t conceal the fact that the story is too thin for a two-hour play. A good deal of the second half, as personal problems delay the graffers’ planned hit on a train in Farringdon, seems repetitive, and some slack direction also adds more unnecessary minutes. With editing, this play could run straight through for an hour or so, gaining some dynamism that it lacks at the moment. The set, designed by director Adam Gattis, also seems a little unexciting and could really do with some more graffiti. The photos on Theatre503’s website show the actors in Waterloo’s Leake Street tunnel, a grand canvas for emerging graffiti artists, and so it’s a shame that none of its colourful energy appears in the set.

Another way to bring some zip to proceedings is to make more use of James Berkery, the movement director. For Mute, tagging a wall or a train is like dancing with its ‘spikes, slashes and drop downs’. We can’t see the art they are making; instead, they suggest it with some choreography, but these dance interludes should persist deeper into the play. As it is, Berkery’s influence appears to end too soon.

Underneath the layers of paint, there is a tender portrait here of two people caught on the wrong side of the tracks. Berri George’s writing is smart and funny, but in the right hands it could also be edgy and subversive. For a play about an illegal activity, this production seems very safe.

Runs until 16 June 2018 | Image: Contributed


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