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FringeReview UK 2019

Little Baby Jesus

Orange Tree Theatre with the JMK Trust

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre Richmond

Festival:


Low Down

Directed by Tristan Fynn-Aidenu, and designed by Tara Usher and lit by Bethany Gupwell with sound by Nicola Chang. Movement consultant’s DK Fashola.

Review

When Arinzé Kene first wrote Little Baby Jesus in 2011 it blasted – just as the earlier Estate Walls did – a pathway out. Not just out of zero-aspirational East London but out of language itself. Apart from a brief reference to Dubya Bush (that could have been amended so horribly easily, to Trump) there’s not a hint that this dates. We’ve not even caught up with Kene.

Kene more than intertwines lives of three school-age teenagers: sensible, mature-seeming sensitive Kehinde (Anyebe Godwin), spiralling Joanne (Rachel Nwokoro) ‘dipped in rudeness, rolled in attitude’, and clowny but decent Rugrat (Khai Shaw); he roils them each in a life-defining coming-of-age crisis. It’s not clear all make it out.

This is more than a dense triple-narrative fluidly spun to each in turn, with two framing choruses all intone. It’s an assault so long overdue on language and ownership. Too long cornered as private ‘patois’ or ‘ghetto’ the intensely evocative, poetic language Kene deploys breaks out and make claims on English itself. Not that it can be owned by everyone, but recognizing such richness has an overlapping vibrancy we can appreciate, absorb, perhaps unconsciously into our own uses and values. And most of all decentralize ownership of language itself.

Helmed by JMK Trust Young director award-winner Tristan Fynn-Aidenu, it’s designed by Tara Usher on a simple circular stage with protective carpeting and two plastic chairs. Lit by Bethany Gupwell who spotlights moments on the upper balcony, Nicola Chang’s sound varies from music to startling urban sound-shots. Movement consultant’s DK Fashola.

The three actors themselves are superb. Godwin has the most challenging role. It’s pure storytelling, soberly told, and in plainer language than elsewhere. It frames Kehinde’s huge regard for his twin Taiwo, his elder though in Yoruba he is for sending her out first, a patriarchy he acknowledges but uses here as ironic counterpoint to his regard for Taiwo’s brilliance. She outruns everyone effortlessly, and on a day when machismo bully Pierre Cunningham challenges her to a race which she effortlessly wins, Pierre challenges Kehinde to pronounce. It’s not a cock but a crow overhead and Kehinde feels his betrayal with especial bitterness. And then Pierre closes in with his friends with stones. Even though Kehinde makes up with his sister, there’s another terrible twist and this time Kehinde must grow. It’s intertwined with another narrative: Joanne’s.

Nwokoro realizes Joanne with a virtuoso roll of words, expressions and boppy wildness. It’s a tour-de-force of expressive exuberance tinged with a sudden sense that this goes over a cliff-edge. It starts when bopping in the shower, and twice crashing down. Like Taiwo, there’s head-stitches – the play’s full of such connections – but there’s an underlying worry. Joanne’s mother has been sectioned and her own future unsettled. Nwokoro’s narrative of her launderette work revolves round her experiences of racial difference. Her white friend Kristina with the brown teeth suddenly finds admiration. Joanne reports: ‘How comes I ain’t never beheld your buffness round here before?’ Alas it’s revoked by boys when she opens her mouth with ‘brown bits on her teeth’, but one boy’s not worried. Lines like ‘I was cracking up. Real Talk. Cos true she was kinda big, carpet lady’ run in parallel with these, allowing Joanne to provide a frantically creative linguistic patchwork both naturalistic and occasionally heightened.

A dumb boy Baker extracts a carpet jammed and earns not just gratitude but Joanne’s virginity. Which is irritating for another boy whom we’ve heard earlier on cannot understand why she did this. Now we know. Physical elegance. Joanne though encounters a difficult path, full of scary internal episodes and consequence of that encounter with Baker. There’s an encounter with Kehinde too, who’s returned south briefly. But no one else has seen him.

Baker though, intoned by Shaw alongside Rugrat, possesses a far darker side. Rugrat ahs adventures with the hateful Pierre, skirting his malign exuberance. But it’s not Pierre that forces him to make a choice. At a bridge they encounter a baby, seemingly abandoned, and all but Rugrat seem intent on spitting then again stoning. It’s Rugrat’s lightbulb and what he chooses to do is both curiously miraculous and laughably mundane. Shaw possesses a chameleon-like infusion of voices a lithe agility that seems to elongate and morph into everything he touches. He’s ideal for the part but also for his suggestive storytelling.

These narratives gather up compellingly with a darkness the opening never truly hints at. There’s plenty of stories too, the grandmother who assaults a white girl for representing all she’s ever suffered at the hands of the British, then being arrested for it.

There is too a visionary even religious edge to these urban myth-makers suggesting an epiphanic edge that’s never underscored, but flows out of our experience of the drama as the three actors circle each other, throw language back and forth, spotlight a story, appear on a balcony or drop down injured. Though the lithe Shaw and explosive Nwokoro prove the most visceral performers, both just graduated, Godwin’s sober compulsions draw you into his stillness.

Anyone seeing this play will be grateful they’ll never feel quite the same way about London, young people or language again.

Published