The bearings of the past on the present and the importance of education to realise that are already being pertinently observed at the National Theatre in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, set in a grammar school. Now Fix Up, a new play by Kwame Kwei-Armah in the NT Cottesloe, filters a similar theme through the prism of black experience, and the legacy of slavery that looms large within it.
Whereas Kwei-Armah’s Elmina's Kitchen (which was first seen in the Cottesloe last year and won him the 2003 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright) was a powerful family drama played out amongst three generations of men in a Hackney café that topically resonated around gun crime, the new play gathers together a more diffuse cross-section of individuals in a north-east London bookshop and puts them on a collision course of external pressures and internal philosophies in the search for their identities.
It’s a more bookish play, in every sense – Bunny Christie’s design evocatively brings the Tottenham bookshop to teeming life with bookshelves piled high to the ceiling (some of them quite out of reach). It has been run for the past 15 years by a man who calls himself Brother Kiyi (Jeffery Kissoon) more as a drop-in centre than as a business. Kiyi loans out more books than he actually sells, and when we finally observe him making a sale here to Alice (Nina Sosanya), who it turns out is looking for more than just reading matter, he’s not even set up to accept credit cards.
No wonder that Kiyi can’t pay the rent, and his friend Norma (Claire Benedict), who comes to play draughts with him regularly, has to bail him out. It’s a shop with lots of philosophy but no customers – the only other people we meet are Kwesi (Steve Toussaint) who runs the All Black African Party from offices upstairs, and Carl (Mo Sefay), an illiterate former crack addict whom Kiyi is teaching to read. But change is inexorably in the air. The building is being turned into lottery-funded flats, and the bookstore is being threatened by being changed into something that the people want more than books: a shop that sells black hair products.
While Kwei-Armah marshals the conflicts and arguments well, there’s also something a little contrived (and eventually melodramatic) about some of the plotting and the revelations it contains. Still, every character springs to such fully-inhabited life in Angus Jackson’s production that you’re held both engaged and challenged.
- Mark Shenton