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A CurtainUp London Review
The Westbridge was written before the riots in August and is almost prophetic. Miss De-lahay’s unproduced play was already a joint winner of the 2010 Alfred Fagon Award for playwrights of African and Caribbean descent, together with Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch. It is a startling new piece, given an exciting production by director Clint Dyer and designer Ultz.
The play turns theatrical staging on its head with the stage a raised platform rectangle on the edges of a very large room, a whole floor of the Bussey Building in Rye Lane, Peckham, once a cricket bat factory. The difference is that the actors are on the raised perimeter of the surround with the audience seated in the middle on chairs facing in different directions. It means spinning around on your seat to catch all the action and I was envious of those who had found the swivel chairs.
The staging is very fluid, full of action and at one point a meal is shared with either end of the table across a twenty foot divide. Quite a challenge when it comes to passing the rotis or when Soriya has to kick Ibi under the table!
The main characters are multi-racial Londoners in their twenties. Fraser Ayres plays Marcus of White Afro Caribbean heritage and his fiancée is Soriya (Chetna Pandya) who father is originally from Pakistan and whose mother is white. Soriya and now Marcus’s flatmate is Georgina (Daisy Lewis) a typical white "Essex" girl (although she too was brought up on the Westbridge estate) who holds a candle for Soriya’s brother, Ibi (Ray Panthaki). Ibi is now settled in an arranged marriage to a girl from Pakistan, a "freshie" as new to the UK immigrants are dubbed.
Living next door to Soriya’s shopkeeper dad, Saghir (Paul Bhattacharjee) is single parent Audrey (Jo Martin) from the Caribbean and, across the generation divide, her 16 year old son Andre (Ryan Calais Cameron). Audrey has moved out of the estate to provide a better start for her son but she is finding it hard to control him.
The spark that lights the tinderbox is when rumours fly round that an underage Asian girl has been raped by a gang of black boys who live on the estate. Marcus and Soriya find the racial tensions impact on their relationship.
Rachel De-lahay makes us examine our prejudices and pre conceptions through those of her characters: when Soriya gets a Reggae cookbook to make something for Marcus, he reminds her that he was brought up by a white mother. Even George, who we have dismissed as relentlessly shallow, becomes less annoying towards the end of the play. These characters are involving and make for engrossing theatre as De-lahay, with her feel for sparky dialogue, allows her play to describe the identities and tensions felt by these twenty somethings from a racially mixed community. Despite the changes of fractured scenes, Clint Dyer’s staging provide clarity as to what is happening.
The performances are excellent. Fraser Ayres is a gentle Marcus, who surprises us with the anger with which he censures Andre. Chetna Pandya’s articulate and feisty career woman Soriya is nevertheless undermined by the old woman’s bigoted comments and Daisy Lewis is perfect as diet conscious, fashion obsessed George. Some of what happens in this atmospheric piece is in the dark, the same experience people would have on the estate with the sound of sirens and breaking glass and shouting at night, as something kicks off.
It will be interesting to see the differences in The Westbridge when it transfers to the Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs, which I think is a smaller space, but I am glad to have seen this new, excitingly staged play at Theatre Local in Peckham.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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