Fringe Online 2021
I’m starting this review with a spoiler, and a confession.
Here’s the spoiler – it ends badly for the character.
Here’s the confession – while I watched, as a white, middle-class male, I kept on thinking that it would all get sorted out, and that finally it would end well.
Because for people like me, things usually do end well – I’m surrounded by a bubble of entitlement which ensures that other people respect my voice and my feelings, and do their best to look after me. If I’m writing this review, and you’re reading it – it’s because we are used to being listened to, and having our opinions valued.
But it’s not the same for all of us …
Christopher Alder is black: working-class Black British. Of Nigerian stock, he informs us, but born and brought up in the UK, and he’s patriotic enough to have previously served in the Parachute Regiment. At one point he tells us that “There is no greater honour than fighting for this brilliant country.”
And Christopher is a regular bloke – a decent, ordinary guy, with a job that’s not particularly interesting and some long-standing mates. There’s an ex-wife somewhere, and he’s got a couple of kids who visit every other weekend. When we first meet him, it’s Saturday afternoon and Christopher is getting ready to go out for the evening. He’s not a whizz in the kitchen, cooks “using the four food groups – Can, Box, Bag and Frozen.”
He’s funny, and his words come out with a sort of Rap rhythm, full of puns and alliterations. He’s not so young any more, and as he looks in the mirror he sees – “Hairline – hair lying to me about where it should be …” Back in the kitchen he puts the cookery book back on the shelf – “Look ‘ere, I cook ‘ere. Don’t need no damn book ‘ere …”
It’s a solo show. Christopher is very engagingly played by Richard Blackwood, and as he gives us lines like these he turns straight to camera, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge in ‘Fleabag’, and breaks the fourth wall. As well as an actor, Blackwood is a TV presenter and a rapper himself, and it shows. He’s a master at changing voice, expression and body language to give us a range of characters.
This is probably the point to tell you about the production’s set. Zahra Mansouri’s design is very minimal – just a clear floor with black curtains hanging at each side and a large panel at the back which could change colour. Three black cubes, big enough to sit on but light enough to slide around the space to create different arrangements, and that’s about it. All the rest (even the cookbook…) done as mime.
Covid-19 restrictions demand that many shows be performed as a virtual productions, but I think that for ‘Typical’ this works as an advantage. Cinematographer Jermaine Edwards has used several cameras, allowing our viewpoint to change from full stage, where we can see the actor moving around the space, all the way to extreme close-up, where occasionally just his eyes are visible. Sometimes he’s lying on the ground, face pressed to the stage, and thanks to the camera at floor level we’re right down there with him. The effect is vastly superior to sitting in a theatre, watching an actor twenty feet away: a real in-your-face performance.
If you’re black, just standing in a queue to get into a club has its problems. You get ignored by the doorman who’s letting other people in first. Christopher is getting irked, but the wonderful writing turns it into a great line – “I don’t wanna start – but I wanna start ravin’. So I stand outside the rave, rantin’, in attempt to be in the rave, ravin’ – instead of outside the rave, rantin’ and ravin’.” Brilliant. I could tell I was listening to a real rapper, or to something by Bob Marley; and in fact lines from ‘Three Little Birds’ did come up later. But that’s another story …
If you’re black, just chatting up a white girl in a club has its problems. This one seems to be attracted to Christopher because of his colour, and that he’s – “not like the other ones …”. For a group of white blokes it’s the exact opposite – “What’s this, then? Political Correctness gone mad?” They tell him to go “back where you came from!” This to a man for whom “There is no greater honour than fighting for this brilliant country.” Inevitably it turns ugly.
Do you know ‘Horse-shoe nail’? The way a situation builds, rolling onwards like a juggernaut, increasing in its effect. From – ‘For want of a nail, the shoe was lost’, all the way to – ‘For want of a war, the Kingdom was lost / and all for the want of a horse-shoe nail’. Chilling. ‘Typical’ has this same nightmare out-of-control feeling, as the action moves from an argument in the club, to a fight outside, to a hospital A&E, to a patrol van and finally a police cell. All the way, Christopher is trying to be heard, to get his side across – but nobody is listening. Not the hospital staff, not the police.
They see him as aggressive (he’s a bit mouthy, remember his impatience outside the nightclub); as having had too much to drink (he’d had a few in the club, true); as having been fighting (cuts and bruises from the attack outside the club); and so nobody is interested in listening to Christopher’s side of things. Nobody can see further than the stereotype. He’s been defined – aggressive, dangerous, uncooperative, Black – and that’s all anyone can see.
Add to that the institutional racism of numerous police officers – documented on (too) many occasions, and brilliantly portrayed recently in Steve McQueen’s ‘Small Axe’ series of films about the Black British experience – and it was probably never going to end well for Christopher. It’s a solo show, remember, and Richard Blackwood plays all the other characters too. We get close-up shots of Blackwood as a police officer, finger jabbing right in Christopher’s face – “Do. You. Want. To. Go. To. Jail.?”. Followed (as night follows day) by “Are you resisting arrest?” …
You need to watch this powerful, shocking production right through to the end, you won’t forget it easily. Ryan Calais Cameron’s writing starts light and funny – remember Christopher’s great lines I mentioned above – but gets progressively darker as the man’s story unfolds with the seeming inevitability of a Greek Tragedy. We are informed at the end of the film that the story is based on true events, and director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s confident and imaginative use of the space made us feel that we were right there alongside Christopher, sharing his experience.
An experience, sadly, all too typical