Bussey Building, London SE15
Opened 8 November, 2011
The Royal Court’s now annual Theatre Local season takes place this autumn in a former industrial building in Peckham. Having first transferred debbie tucker green’s truth and reconciliation from the theatre’s main house, the Court now premières Rachel De-lahay’s The Westbridge here before it relocates later this month to the Upstairs space in Sloane Square. Perhaps this location was one factor in renaming De-lahay’s play from its original title SW11, the postcode of Battersea, a few miles to the west. The fictional Westbridge estate, though, feels equally at home in Peckham, or at any rate in the area’s reputation. This was one of the principal sites of rioting in August, and public disturbance forms the background to much of the action of the play, which unfolds over the day or so following an attack on a girl in the area.
De-lahay fits pretty much every ethnic variation into her cast of characters: Afro-Caribbean and ethnic Asian characters, both full-blooded and mixed-race, are joined by a young white woman who considers herself black in spirit although still white-middle-class enough to insist she lives in “south Chelsea”. What seems at first to be box-ticking is necessary in order to explore different vectors of racism, principally Asian-on-black: the rumour quickly spreads that young Asian Sara was gang-raped by several black youths. In this context Soriya, a mixed-race white/Ugandan-Asian woman, finds herself re-evaluating stereotypes about all groups, and in particular questioning her relationship with Marcus, her mixed-race white/Afro-Caribbean boyfriend who has just moved in with her.
In her first play, De-lahay shows an impressively complex vision, staged by director Clint Dyer on raised rostra and gangways all around the edges of the space, with the audience sitting in the middle and swivelling to follow events. However, her voice is as yet more uncertain, and more to the point so are her characters’ voices. The phrasing is fine, but the matters uttered all feel too self-consciously to be elements of the overall debate; nothing seems to happen except in order to give someone a chance to show some particular angle. Neither Dyer’s undeniably vibrant if somewhat modish staging, the final revelation of the truth behind all the assumptions and misunderstandings, nor the most skilled hands in the cast, Paul Bhattacharjee and Jo Martin as the parental generation, can dispel this air of deliberateness.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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