Two telling moments at the opening night of Elmina’s Kitchen: one onstage, one in the foyer before the show. The line “You been watching too much Casualty, mate!” gets a big laugh when the actor it’s directed at is both the play’s author and a star of the series. Conversely, the snooty remark “At least you know how to dress properly” to a friend is not just snobbish, but on a night like this it’s downright racist.
Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play netted him a Most Promising award in the 2003 Oliviers. Now the National Theatre/ Birmingham Rep production has arrived in the West End, the first play there by a black British writer in an age. It’s a sharp, intelligent look at a whole load of the pressures facing folk in contemporary urban black Britain. The addition of Kwei-Armah himself to the cast only adds to its appeal.
Deli runs the Hackney café which gives the play its title. He tries to keep his teenage son Ashley from the culture of guns and crime represented by local kingpin Digger, but he tries in vain. Meanwhile, Deli’s own estranged father returns unexpectedly, with the swagger and bravado of a previous generation. As Deli tries to forsake his father’s ways, so Ashley sees no point in Deli’s dead-end honesty. The end’s inevitable.
It’s easy to mistake this for a lament for the breakdown of the family. But the looser “babyfather” concept itself is just a by-product of the pervasive, stupid yet compelling machismo that’s at the heart of the culture here. Why sell out for just a small place of your own when you can carry a Tech.9 pistol and lord it over a whole area? This is what Kwei-Armah is addressing. He has no answers, but questions well.
Angus Jackson’s production boasts a host of excellent performances: Don Warrington as father Clifton, Michael Obiora as Ashley, Doña Croll as sassy waitress Anastasia. Live West African music adds to the atmosphere. In some ways, Kwei-Armah himself as Deli is the weak link in the acting: he’s a little too stilted on stage. But even such a downbeat play is still a breath of fresh air for the West End.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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