After winning an Olivier last year for her debut Gone Too Far!, in the Royal Court Upstairs (See News, 21 Oct 2009), Bola Agbaje returned to Sloane Square last week, premiering her latest play Off the Endz in the main Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, where it opened on Friday 19 February 2010 (previews from 11 February) and continues until 13 March.
In Off the Endz, Sharon (Lorraine Burroughs) is a hard-working nurse living with well-intentioned, aspirational businessman Kojo (Daniel Francis), whose best mate David (Ashley Walters), a habitual offender and Sharon’s former boyfriend, has just come out of prison. David is a foul-mouthed, abusive scumbag, with Neanderthal social attitudes and a leech-like dependency on his friends’ hospitality. Jeremy Herrin directs.
Overnight critics were somewhat divided as to whether Off the Endz matches Agbaje’s earlier plays Gone Too Far! and Detaining Justice (at the Tricycle last year) – while some considered it “another ace play”, others found it “naïve” and overly “schematic” – but they agreed that Agbaje, aged 29, remains an “extraordinary natural talent” with “a terrific future”. Here, her work benefits from Herrin’s “brisk” and “expertly acted” production, with Ashley Walters’ “incorrigibly cocky” and “blistering” performance as David a particular standout.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “The promisingly talented Bola Agbaje creates a cheeky black version echo of the Royal Court’s most famous debutant, John Osborne … The acting is almost embarrassingly raw, in a good way, with Ashley Walters pushing us to the limit with his cascade of appalling remarks first to an office secretary (feistily done by Madeline Appiah) and a job centre receptionist (an unfazed Natasha Williams) … Maybe Agbaje should soon start broadening her canvas and writing more characters. But her subject is so rich and her vision of it so dense, the startling scenes of confrontation and dispute are more than enough for now.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Not long ago the Royal Court was the centre of victim drama. And not long ago the subject matter of Bola Agbaje’s new play would have come across very differently. After all, it involves a black couple desperate to leave their sink estate and raise a baby in a safer place, only to be thwarted by escalating debts, the arrival of a needy friend who has been in prison, and gun-toting teenagers. Society must be the villain, mustn’t it? Not according to Agbaje … (who) takes a dim view of the credit-card culture … Is it reactionary to find this refreshing? Not after you’ve encountered Agbaje’s most vital character, Ashley Walters’ David, the friend who has emerged from jail with his sense of entitlement raring to go. Agbaje’s ending is a bit wishful, but also ominous. She doesn’t sentimentalise … or pass easy judgments … At just 29; Agbaje is a writer with a terrific future.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) – “One of the great pleasures of British theatre in recent years has been the emergence of a new generation of outstanding black playwrights ... So credit to the Royal Court for giving its main stage to Bola Agbaje, who has several fine plays to her credit. Unfortunately, Off the Endz, lively, entertaining and sometimes tensely dramatic though it is, doesn’t strike me as being in the same league as earlier successes such as Gone Too Far, and her superb play about asylum seekers in Britain, Detaining Justice … To be frank, it all seems a touch schematic, and the characters, though vividly sketched, lack real depth and development. But there is no doubt that the piece has great theatrical energy and is well performed in Jeremy Herrin’s brisk production ... It’s not a great play, but for its 75-minute running time, it rarely relaxes its grip.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “By far the most memorable feature of (Agbaje’s new play) is David, who’s realised in blistering style by Ashley Walters, once of So Solid Crew … Although the thwarted aspiration of black Britons has potential as a subject, the writing lacks bite and the storytelling feels a touch naïve. There are a few moments of sharp humour, but there’s not much subtlety or shading, and the characters’ foibles are over familiar. It’s the charismatic presence of Walters that raises Jeremy Herrin’s production above a rather heavy-limbed sort of ordinariness. As this swaggering huckster for whom life is little more than a corrupt game, he’s a revelation - a study in cruel magnetism, dynamic and haunting.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “Off the Endz illustrates Bola Agbaje’s extraordinary natural talent for blending penetrating moral insight, razor-sharp awareness of the zeitgeist and a lovely mischievous wit that is prepared to go off-message in order to be artistically on-song … Jeremy Herrin\'s production is expertly acted … Ashley Walters is a dab hand at playing the kind of incorrigibly cocky but also rather sexy young man that a woman might want to both slap down hard and then snog … The play is very funny as well as disturbing … Another ace play from Agbaje.”