The Theatreguide.London Review
of Coldharbour Lane
Soho Theatre June 2007
There is a lot of talent, invention and creative energy in Oladipo Agboluaje's new drama, and if it eventually can't quite hang together, still it is more impressive than many less ambitious plays.
Agboluaje takes on themes of faith, politics, racism and cultural psychology, and posits connections that are deliberately more provocative than authoritative - that is, he wants to make us think (and occasionally laugh) about them rather than offering a final word on the subject.
At the centre of his play is a street preacher in Brixton (the London Afro-Caribbean neighbourhood that is equivalent in fact and cultural myth to New York's Harlem), who finds that he must compete not only with dozens of other evangelists but with his own church's inclination to offer a toothlessly comfortable message just to draw in the converts.
His own harsher gospel finding no converts, he comes under the influence of a socialist revolutionary, who convinces him that the sin to preach against is 'wilful peace,' the community's passive acquiescence in their own economic and cultural marginalisation.
But even then he can't get far. When he actually produces a couple of miracles (healing the lame, raising the dead), all he gets are requests for lottery numbers and help getting kids into good schools, and when his call to rise up is heard, it is quickly co-opted by the revolutionaries and perverted into street riots.
There's a lot going on there, and it is frequently both inventive and entertaining, with most of the cast of six quadrupling roles to create a sense of the community. But the ambitions of the play ultimately work against it.
One understands the logic of having the preacher himself disappear from the play before its end, but that means that our focus goes as well. Many of the strongest characterisations and theatrical moments are really part of the background and local colour rather than the play's centre, again dissipating its energy. And the central character himself is perhaps the least clearly defined.
Still, director Paulette Randall creates a remarkable sense of vitality and community on what is essentially a bare stage, and leads her cast to the instant characterisations that doubling and quadrupling roles requires.
Jimmy Akingbola captures the preacher's pain at being unable to convey his message, while sustaining the ambiguity of whether he is inspired or deluded. Dona Croll brings warmth and reality, along with some bawdy fun, to the role of his Magdalene, here a Brixton pole dancer, and Mark Monero and Javone Prince make the most of their multiple roles..
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