There's always such joy in the unexpected, and Little Baby Jesus is certainly one such production. Written by Arinze Kene, recent recipient of the Offie for most promising playwright for his debut play Estate Walls, and who is on the writing team for the Eastenders spin-off, E20, the piece could have been seen as an angst-ridden teen drama, told mostly in indecipherable teen slang and references that fly incomprehensibly over the heads of anyone over 18. That it is, in part, all of those things but still speaks to a wider audience, demonstrates the immense skill of the writer and the performers to bring the characters to vibrant life.
Presented as part of the London Via Lagos Festival, Little Baby Jesus is heart-warming, heart-breaking, poetic, layered, funny and ultimately a thought-provoking exploration of live as an inner-city teenager and the experiences that force them to become an adult. The three stories become ever more interlaced as their lives grow in complexity and responsibility, suffering betrayal and betraying others.
Kehinde (Fiston Barack) is enjoying his attraction to light-skinned girls, referred to as "mixed-race girl syndrome", focusing on the "sun-kissed finish", the superficiality of the exterior, and unable to support his twin sister when she needs him most. Jodie (Seroca Davis) has bucket-loads of attitude and bravado that hide her vulnerability while Rugrat (Akemnji Ndifornyen) is the class clown who just wants to be liked by everyone.
This includes his awe for the local gang leader, the bad boy who scares everyone except Kehinde's twin sister. Life and experience eventually catch up with them all, their lives becoming inter-connected as terrible events push them into adulthood. This is truly a "coming of age" story for the new decade.
Yes, there are moments when the slang becomes a bit opaque, and at times the actors are prone to gabble their lines, but these are minor distractions from the eloquence and reality of the play and the performances. The actors are all exceptional, portraying the confusion and vulnerability of the teenager, and their transition to adulthood with depth and skill.
Kene, who has also appeared as Connor in Eastenders, is clearly an up-and-coming talent with many more awards likely to come his way. Definitely one to watch.