Arcola Theatre, London E8 / Royal Court Theatre, London  SW1
Opened 27 June / 28 July, 2008
**** / ***

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.
Torn 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 feels like 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 complex still.
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 in Torn, 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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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