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The Theatreguide.London Review

Bush Theatre  Spring 2018

There is a lot of energy, invention and wit in Arinze Kene's new play, and the playwright's fresh new voice, that of a young black Londoner, will appeal to white and black audiences alike. 

There isn't quite as much focus and structure to the almost-a-monologue drama, so its strengths lie more in individual moments than the whole. 

Kene tacitly admits a problem with focus by telling two distinct stories simultaneously. 

The inner one is about a young black Londoner living on the edge of criminality, who impulsively attacks someone on a night bus and then spends the following day on the run. His tale is of discovering friends, family and lovers turning their backs on him as he goes to them for refuge. 

But partway through this story Kene reveals that it is actually the plot of a play that a young black Londoner named Arinze Kene is attempting to write. 

This would-be playwright's biggest problem is that his friends, family and lovers all attack him for writing about a stereotype the dangerous black semi-criminal that only feeds the prejudices of white audiences, instead of what they would consider more accurate and honest depictions of urban black life. 

The play we are watching jumps back and forth between the two protagonists and, for reasons that the writer-performer in front of us explains, never really resolves either plot. 

Along the way, however, he has made some sharp and biting comments on urban life and art that particularly the young black Londoners but also everyone else in the audience can respond to. 

Directed by Omar Elerian, Kene performs this multilevel text through a mix of narration, dramatisation and description, and in styles and performance modes ranging from prose to rap to singing to mime. 

He is supported by two musicians (Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod) who are there primarily to provide the rhythm track for the rap sections but who also play some minor roles in the story, and by a little girl (either Mya Napoleon or Rene Powell) who is ironically cast as a disapproving older sister. 

And a sting of clips from the soundtracks of various movies are arranged into conversations that make Morgan Freeman an unwitting supporting actor here. 

As impressive as this repertoire of writing and performance modes is, it adds to an overall sense of disjointedness, and of invention spinning outwards in all directions rather than directed toward serving the play. 

A similar effect is generated when Kene introduces a clever overriding metaphor involving blood cells and viruses, only to reject it midway through the play and assign different meanings to its symbols (in the process introducing an unprepared-for and never fully integrated attack on gentrification), while the recurring appearance of orange balloons remains part of a private symbolic vocabulary Kene offers us no entry into. 

There is talent here. There is originality, and seriousness of intention, and freshness of authorial voice. If there isn't quite yet the full control over all this talent and the ability to shape its product into a coherent whole, Arinze Kene is unquestionably a writer and performer to watch.

Gerald Berkowitz

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