Here are two plays about black/black
prejudice in contemporary Britain, each having moved into its venue’s
main house after an initial studio airing last year. Indeed, it is only
due to the success of Femi Oguns’ Torn
at the Arcola that an extension of its run (until this Saturday) means
I can consider it in comparison with Bola Agbaje’s Royal Court debut Gone Too Far!
, whose Downstairs run
has just begun.
has a classic set-up:
Nigerian-born David and Natasha, of Jamaican parentage, are in love but
have to struggle against the prejudices of those around them,
principally Natasha’s father Malcolm and David’s elder sister. Agbaje’s
protagonists are in a more complex situation, in that they are two
young Nigerian-born brothers, the elder a recent arrival in London, the
younger far more assimilated into a Caribbean-dominated street culture.
Consequently, the brothers are not just dealing with pressures from
outside, but trying to find an accommodation between themselves as to
their common heritage.
Despite this, Torn
the more ambitious piece. Each play is prey to the tendency to cue up
set-piece speeches by characters... and rather too obviously didactic
ones, in the case of Agbaje’s character Blazer, who “runs the estate”
but does so with some dignity and intelligence. However, Oguns includes
an additional, admirable element by making the crucial indictment of
Jamaican Malcolm’s prejudices come from an eastern European workmate;
the reality of 21st-century Britain, this writer recognises, is more
Both directors, Raz Shaw at the Arcola and Bijan Sheibani at the Court,
make full use of an unadorned playing area, which can cause problems
with the acoustics and consequent intelligibility of lines (generally
, specifically with
the offstage mother in Gone Too Far!
Sheibani’s production is significantly the more strongly acted: as
Armani, the self-obsessed girl “from yard” who attempts to stir up
trouble with the Africans, Zawe Ashton is consistently annoying in the
extreme, and I mean that as praise. But it feels a little too schematic
– the only white characters are a frightened old lady and a couple of
cartoon-antagonistic policemen – and even on this repeat viewing I
cannot divine the significance of the dance sequences inserted between
scenes. Certainly in performance, Agbaje’s play is tastier, but I think
that ultimately Oguns’ is the more nutritious.
Written for the Financial