New theatres are springing up as regularly as salacious stories about England rugby players at present, and the new Brixton Empire is especially heartening to me, located as it is a few minutes’ walk from my flat.
I can report that, if not one of the more clearly sign-posted venues on the fringe (despite being housed in the roof of the iconic St Matthews Church it’s surprisingly difficult to locate), it is certainly one of the most comfortable, with generously proportioned cushioned benches and even shelves for drinks.
This is just as well as its first production, the UK premiere of Laurence Holder’s When the Chickens Came Home to Roost, runs at nearly two hours without an interval.
The play centres on the relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad – the beating heart of the Black Muslim movement. The title is a reference to X’s notorious comment in the wake of JFK’s assassination that, for white people, “the chickens are coming home to roost”. It caused a rift with Muhammad that never really healed.
Artistic director Daljinder Singh’s production lacks momentum but is atmospherically staged in a traverse arrangement. Set predominantly in Muhammad’s office, the tension builds as the two men engage in a clash of ideology, methodology and, most importantly, power.
Malcolm X, played in the 1981 New York premiere by Denzel Washington, is here portrayed by Ricky Fearon in a performance than reveals him as an actor of great passion and poise. His foil is Peter Landi, who successfully conveys Muhammad’s ageing insecurities and frustration at his slipping stranglehold over his more famous charges (more than one reference is made to a certain high-profile boxer).
Holder’s dialogue is dense; longueurs abound and at times drama seems to have been sacrificed to detail. But nevertheless it’s an assured and appropriate production to kick-start this promising new venue.