Ambassadors Theatre, London – until 22 November 2016
If you like your drama to have energy, even if it is a bit rough around the edges, then the National Youth Theatre must surely be for you. Established in 1956, and thus celebrating its 60th anniversary, the world’s first youth theatre now regularly stages a long rep season in the West End with a large cast aged anything from 15 to 25. This autumn, as well as Romeo and Juliet and a revival of Dennis Kelly’s DNA, the company are performing Pigeon English, Gbolahan Obisesan’s new adaptation of Stephen Kelman’s 2011 Man Booker prize shortlisted novel.
The general theme of youth and violence is aptly exemplified by this story, which is loosely based on the case of Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor, who was only 10 years old when he was killed in Peckham in 2000. Set on the fictional Dell Farm estate, Pigeon English shows what happens when Harri, a Ghanaian 10-year-old, and his best friend Dean attempt to find out who fatally stabbed another local schoolboy. The story is narrated in Harri’s slightly broken English, with occasional philosophical utterances from one of the pigeons he likes so much.
Things get more dangerous when Harri’s big sister Lydia is attracted to a neighbourhood gang leader. Although much of what his gang does is simply posturing, they have the potential to inflict harm too. At the same time, Harri’s aunt — who often pops in on his mother — is going out with Julius, a rent-collector and money-lender who not only intimidates his clients, but also beats up aunt. With Harri’s father still in Ghana, the boy is mainly in the company of women and boys, with his natural role model far far away.
Obisesan’s writing is better at conveying the teen banter of the kids than at the sub-rap poetry of the pigeon, who comments and points up the moral of the piece. The theme of poverty and violence is a bit depressing since it is not clear what options these kids have. As so often in the staging of underclass situations, there’s a kind of inevitability about the result. These working-class kids are presented as fun, but without hope, and I think that this does them a disservice.
Anna Niland’s production has a climbing frame set, designed by Cecilia Carey, and fields exuberant performances from the large NYT cast. It has been a great idea to choose a young woman, the excellent Seraphina Beh, as Harri so that the character’s voice has a suitably child-like timbre. She’s onstage for most of the performance and carries the show, being both tender and vulnerable. Felix Mackenzie-Barrow is likewise strong as Dean and Daisy Fairclough similarly impressive as Harri’s sister Lydia, who switches accents depending on whether she’s at home or with the gang. As for the pigeon, its text is spoken by Never Normal Girl (Charlotte Law), who acts as the narrator. Kane Husbands’s movement results in some exciting stage pictures, and, on the positive side, the general effect is of an evening that is both entertaining and troubling.
© Aleks Sierz
Pigeon English is at Ambassadors Theatre until 22 November.
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