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A CurtainUp London Review
Off The Endz
Set among a group of young black 20 somethings who grew up on a London estate (the eponymous "Endz"), the play depicts characters who have lived through a dangerous upbringing surrounded by crime, looking to the future and trying to escape their past. In many ways, their issues are universal as they try to get established economically, afford a mortgage and provide a good life for their children, with the proviso that it is more difficult if you are black.
When the play opens, Sharon and Kojo are both working: Sharon (Lorraine Burroughs) as a nurse and Kojo (Daniel Francis) in a business job which he got after working as an intern. Sharon is also expecting their first child. The applecart is upset by the arrival of Sharon's ex-boyfriend, and Kojo's school friend, David (Ashley Walters). Newly released from prison and not prepared to work in minimum wage jobs, David instead opts for a get rich quick scheme which might not be entirely legal.
David is a forceful character with some of the script's very best lines and brilliantly played by the charismatic Ashley Walters. His non-compromising stand against authority is wonderful from the first row he has with Keisha, the uppity receptionist at Kojo's workplace (Madeline Appiah). Their standoff, which has Keisha head jabbing like a turkey, sees David's aggression and rudeness. We expect him to have a similar scene at the Jobcentre but there the older woman Marsha (Natasha Williams) handles him better and he is charming. We know he's a bad boy but we still love him.
However he does come between Sharon and Kojo, in a traditional triangular conflict of two against one at any point in time. The pairing shifts but it's often Sharon fighting with Kojo about David. David is an infuriating and inconsiderate house guest and some of his more outrageous statements draw shocked intakes of breath from the audience. Kojo has trouble keeping a grip on Sharon's spending and, although she uncompromisingly wants a lawful existence, she also has a consumer appetite for fashion, good furniture and expensive TV cable packages. With eight credit cards and four store cards, the couple are getting into debt but Kojo can't broach the subject with his pregnant wife. David offers Kojo a way out of these financial problems and together they run up against the gang of impossibly young kids whose territory is the Endz. These small chilling hoodies are really scary.
Lorraine Burroughs and Daniel Francis are convincing and attractive as the upwardly mobile pair. Jeremy Herrin's direction is tight and the performances are of the very best. The quick dialogue has a natural pace and sound that is thrilling. I very much liked Ultz's design, plain cream walls for Kojo's flat and shutters but which, when lit with ultra violet light, exposes the graffiti and decay of the estate in acid greens. Jo Joelson's stylish lighting also gives us exciting memorable visuals, dramatic images of figures silhouetted in black against a wall of fluorescent turquoise and green.
What elevates Bola Agbaje's writing is the compassion with which she draws even morally questionable characters, as well as the fresh, dynamic energy of the dialogue. With nuanced insight, she depicts the influence of a past they want to leave behind but are also drawn to: the nostalgia and friendship, not to mention the potential profit. Bola Agbaje's play about the clash of values and the reality of gang culture hits home with a powerful smack.
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