Thursday, 29 September 2016

Review Pigeon English

Pigeon English
By Stephen Kelman
Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan

Wild About Harri

The past is always with us, even when current events sweep us along. And while Pigeon English is startlingly contemporary, there's also a backward echo to the tragedy of little Damilola Taylor. But as this adaptation of the novel by Stephen Kelman makes clear, there's always a doppelgänger somewhere in the world in the present, future and past.

This picaresque play follows the life of Ghanaian immigrant, Harri (Seraphina Beh in cross gender casting), an 11 year old schoolboy who with his best mate Dean sets out CSI-style to solve the murder by stabbing of a young basketball ace near Luxembourg House on a London estate.

Framed Shakespearean-style with a poetic prologue (Charlotte Law) who also pushes the narrative along with diary entry type interjections, not of time but of locations.

Directed by Anna Niland with electronic and natural vocal beatboxing sound effects mixed with African inflections, we are given a map of and hear the pulse of Harri's world - estate, the ninth floor flat of Harri's family in Luxembourg House, the school, the Jubilee Centre community hall with a place for an immigrant chapel, the bus stop, the pub, the laundrette, the bins, the Catholic Church, all touched by the tribal gangs where it's either for or against,  and  overhead the sounds of the cooing, fluttering pigeons.

For Harri's migrant family, his shift-working midwife mother (Chineyne Ezeudu) and his sister Lydia (Daisy Fairclough), has also flown in to this country, leaving behind the father and baby sister Agnes with only the occasional tenuous telephone connection.

In the tribal world on the London estate everyone is making sacrifices, tributes and offerings from the schoolyard to the gangs to the Opoku family having to pay Caribbean Julius (Joshua Lyster-Downer) to whom the mother's sister, Sonia (Shalisha James-Davis) has attached herself. But Sonia has made her own sacrifice to escape the authorities, burning off the skin on her finger tips so she has no finger prints.

The two-hour piece has a televisual feel, even, or perhaps more so,  with the abused Never Normal Girl of the prologue and Harri speaking directly to the audience. The plot strands could make up a several episodes, sometimes veering off in colourful, characterful, observational directions, although a little jam packed for a stage production.

It's loud, brash and energetic with Harri, even if he is led astray or a bystander to misdemeanours, an unfailing optimist and sweet child in this new country. In short, a child with every hope for the years ahead.

Cecelia Carey's set of slender scaffolding conjures up the nooks and crannies of the estate, the schoolyard and schoolroom, inside and outside space. It raises the action on different levels, filled with geometric shapes, providing the kids of the estate with their own pigeon lofts. All fronted by a clverly constructed tunnel entrance, half representing the whole, through which we watch the action.

Beh is a determined Harri, intent on his trainers with a crush on fellow classmate Poppy whom we see only though his eyes. Felix MacKenzie Barrow as best friend Dean contrasts well, a mixture of the gormless and the streetwise.

Fairclough's Lydia tries to make her way in grown up matters beyond her years  with equally adrift but threatening mates Maquita (Arianna Beadie) and Chantelle (Natasha Heliotis). There's good work too from Nathaniel Wade as the worldly preacher, Joe Pierson as the yo-yoing Jordan, who may be more dangerous than he seems, and Kwami Odoom as gang leader X-fire with Shiv Jalota as gang member Dizzy.

Some of the best scenes are the intimate, domestic ones  with  Chineyne Ezeudu as Momma, alongside Shalisha James-Davis as her glamorous sister, Sonia, and Joshua Lyster-Downer as moneylender Julius with the two children, Harri and Lydia.  

Pigeon English is never glib but it does feel sometimes as if it is doing too much, despite the themes threaded through to integrate the plot and hints of  wider political contexts. It's a zestful episodic tale of linking stories swirling around Harri vividly and excitingly, where life for everyone, young and old, becomes riskier and riskier. Like the life it portrays it's flawed but an intense and passionate piece and it's another amber/green light for a multifaceted both spiritual and disturbingly earthbound play

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