Black issues, grey area
STATEMENT OF REGRET Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1
NO ONE messes with the Jews, says Adrian, the young, black, Oxfordeducated intern who works for a black policy think-tank in Kwame KweiArmah’s play about black Britain. “Or if they do,” he says, “they’re wary, even scared.”
It is not the first time Kwei-Armah has compared British blacks with British Jews in order to examine the condition of this country’s black community.
In previous plays — Elmina’s Kitchen and Fix Up — the author’s chosen territory was the corrosive effects of black-on-black crime and the community’s lack of interest in culture that is not pop. Here, KweiArmah’s concern is the fissure that exists between Britain’s black African community and this country’s longestablished Afro-Caribbeans.
For Kwaku Mackenzie (an excellent Don Warrington), the founder of the influential Institute of Black Policy Research in whose offices the play is set, white racism was why he created the think tank, and white racism remains the greatest enemy to his people. Except that the definition of who his people are is changing.
That question of identity is embodied by Kwaku (born Derek) himself, whose heritage is West Indian but whose welleducated staff hail mainly from Africa. Or as Idrissa (Chu Omambala), the think tank’s gay director of research, puts it, if white racism is the cause of black disadvantage, why do British children of African descent do better at school than children from West Indian families?
Then there are the personal politics of Kwaku — who has turned to the bottle following his father’s death — and that of his family. His wife, Lola (Ellen Thomas), is Nigerian and their son, Junior (Javone Prince), is less favoured than Kwaku’s illegitimate other son — the aforementioned Adrian (Clifford Samuel), who is of wholly West Indian descent.
Though these fascinating issues are articulately expressed, Jeremy Herrin’s production is only fitfully absorbing — partly because the sterility of the play’s office setting. And although Kwei-Armah is admirably looking to undermine stereotypes and assumptions, there is something formulaic about how his objective is reached here.
But, he is still the most intelligent writer on his subject and it’s not for nothing he bears comparison to August Wilson and even Arthur Miller.
CANDLESTICKS Pentameters, London NW3
WHEN I first saw Deborah Freeman’s family drama at North London’s Lion and Unicorn theatre a couple of years ago, I said that this play was full of dramatic potential.
This revival directed by Jackie Skarvellis confirms that view, but also reinforces the sense that Freeman’s characters are so oddly motivated, you spend most of the play suspending disbelief.
Jenny (Deborah Leveroy) has returned home to her observant Jewish mother, Louise (Pearl Marsland), with the news that she has converted to Christianity. Louise’s neighbour is Julia (Kate Worth), whose Jewish father was ostracised when he married her gentile mother, and whose feckless son, Ian (James Weisz), decides to convert to Judaism.
The legacy of faith and religion gives plenty to explore. But so badly behaved are these people, you just end up not caring. When Jenny gives the Shabbat candlesticks to her childhood sweetheart Ian, she knows how much it will hurt her mother. Worse, Ian accepts the gift despite Louise’s pleas. And why Louise would stay friends with the antisemitic Julia is impossible to fathom. No it’s not, Freeman needs the conflict for drama. But if you don’t believe the conflict, you can’t believe the drama.
For an interesting moment the converted Jenny, who gives away the family silver, seemed like a modernday Jessica from The Merchant of Venice. But the thought drowned in the contrived complexity of the play. (Tel: 020 7435 3648)
THIS LATEST musical based on the back catalogue of a pop-group fails to answer the first question posed by this type of show — how do you marry plot and music when each was written without a thought for the other?
It can work. Take Our House, which was based on the music of Madness.
But this stage version of the film that starred Madonna and Rosanna Arquette (here with Kelly Price and Emma Williams) never gets out of the blocks because Angus Jackson’s production almost needs a crowbar to wedge Blondie’s music into the story about a bored, suburban housewife who gets mistaken for a drifter. Great music, though. (Tel: 0870 950 0935)
DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN Novello, London WC2
Clifford Samuel as Adrian and Don Warrington as Kwaku in Statement of Regret at the Cottesloe