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Oxford Street

But you know us manz from South gotta look out for each other, especially when we out the endz.— Darrell, meaning South Londoners hard men need to help each other especially when they are out of their home area.
Oxford Street
Nathaniel Martello-White as Kofi and Preena Kalidas as Loraina
(Photo: Johan Persson)
Levi David Addai's new play set in London's most famous shopping street is about the dilemma a young black man finds himself in. A few months out of university, his job is a job, but dead end. Being a security officer in a large sportswear store in Oxford Street is not what he would have hoped for after getting into a student loan to pay for his degree.

Nathaniel Martello-White, a most versatile and expressive actor and RADA graduate, takes on the role of Kofi, a British born man whose parents were from the Caribbean. The play's subject matter sounds not to be out of the ordinary but the production Addai's play gets at the Royal Court upstairs is extraordinary. The audience are sat on the shop floor on white plastic stools which could be window dressing props, right in the midst of the action while the cast go about their working day. Sometimes we are in the security office or checking staff for stolen goods as they leave, sometimes in a stockroom behind the hanging rails of tracksuits or the staff lunch area. These seating arrangements provide a level of intimacy which draws us into the predicament of Kofi.

In charge of security is an older man from Ghana, Emmanuel (Cyril Nri), shop worker Loraina (Preena Kalidas) is London born of Brazilian extraction, other workers are from Poland, Bangladesh and South London. Essex woman, Stephanie (Amelia Lowdell) is in charge. When Darrell Obi-Anderson (Ashley Walters) comes to work at the store everything changes.

Darrell and Kofi were at school together in Peckham and Darrell helps Kofi by dealing with two young punks one of whom punched Kofi when he tried to stop them molesting Loraina and making trouble in the shop. But a few days later Darrell wants the favour repaid and asks Kofi to turn off the security system while Darrell steals stock from the shop. Kofi is caught with divided loyalties. He knows he shouldn't steal, he is paid to prevent theft but he also finds it hard to take a stand against smooth talking Darrell with his persuasive manner calling up old loyalties and emotional blackmail about wanting to give his two kids a good Christmas.

When the two meet for the first time in the shop and recall schooldays, the people they both knew, Kofi talks about getting a degree, Darrell talk about getting two kids. The audience is so close that they can feel the pull on Kofi to fall in with being one of the group, keeping his head down and not going up against the stronger personality. When Emmanuel discovers some merchandise that he thinks Kofi is taking, Emmanuel's gut feeling is that Kofi is not a thief but he is unable to persuade Kofi to implicate Darrell.

Levi David Addai's play has much comic banter and could be described as a comedy were it not for the pathos of his main theme. His ear for dialogue is accurate and his characters encompass London's multicultural melting pot society. There is a very funny scene where Stephanie thinks that Emmanuel would celebrate some sort of African Christmas and she condescendingly asks him about this. "Don't you have a person that represents Chris . . . . What's their name?" His reply is "Jesus Christ". The night we saw the play, a young black audience member got very excited by a speech made by a potential "gansta", all mouth and bravado, that he leapt up off his stool, whooping and ready to high five the "rude boy" actor. This single incident more than any other served to illustrate the pressure on youth to conform. Here we are watching a play about a good man trying to resist what he knows is wrong and there is a boy in the audience who wants to identify with the dominant teen culture of the bad boy.

All the performances are first class and believable at very close quarters. Nathaniel Martello-White's quirky and comic Kofi who has all the stuffing taken out of him by being suspended from his job, is memorable with a quiet tragedy. This young actor has a fascinating range and an interesting tilt to his nose: he was excellent too in The Brothers Size at the Young Vic last winter. I especially liked too Preena Kalidas (last seen as the Narrator in Joseph) showing a completely different range with her high pitched London twang and finely observed performance as a girl unafraid to speak out for herself with a few complaints. Ashley Walters as Darrell may be up to no good but he is friendly and plausible hustler.

The two punks (Daniel Kaluuya and Reece Beaumont) roll in, one with a folded kerchief under his cap giving him the appearance of having long navy cloth ears like a spaniel but the others members of the cast are dressed in uniform. The shop floor has real security device detecting gates and a few props to create flexible and different sections. Director Dawn Walton has given us an intelligent reading of Levi David Addai's play about the forces and pressures of youth culture.

Oxford Street
Written by Levi David Addai
Directed by Dawn Walton

Starring: Nathaniel Martello-White, Preena Kalidas
With: Cyril Nri, Shane Zaza, Kristian Kiehling, Ashley Walters, Amelia Lowdell, Daniel Kaluuya, Reece Beaumont
Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting: Philip Gladwell
Sound: Carolyn Dowling
Running time: One hour 40 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 7565 5000
Booking to 31st May 2008
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 9th May 2008 performance at The Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court Theatre, Sloane Square, London SW1 (Tube: Sloane Square)
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