The latest 'Theatre Local' adventure of the Royal Court is in a small former factory (weapons, cricket bats, sweat shirts) on several floors on Rye Lane, Peckham, where designer Ultz has transformed one of the levels of the Bussey Building into a Battersea housing estate.
How? By placing the audience in the middle of a surrounding platform on all four sides; lighting designer Katharine Williams has added neon lighting on ceiling and pillars which flash on and off when the temperature rises on the streets.
The Westbridge is Rachel De-lahay’s first play, a product of the Court’s Unheard Voices group. Even though her sharp, bitty dialogue is predictably full of street patois and hoodie slang, it sounds both invigorating and instantly familiar.
The scenes chop and change quickly, too, sustaining several story-lines, so the effect is like watching EastEnders “live” in a recording studio, but with more swearing. The challenge is to concentrate all this into sustained playwriting.
There’s a strong mixed-race theme, with white good-time girl Georgina (Daisy Lewis), who wants to be a model, causing domestic abrasion between her Pakistani friend Soriya’s (Chetna Pandya) new half-white, Afro-Caribbean boyfriend Marcus (Fraser Ayres).
Against a backdrop of riots, lootings and reports of a teenage Asian girl being raped by a gang of black youths, feckless Andre (Ryan Calais Cameron) defies a curfew order from his mother (Jo Martin), the next-door neighbour of surly hang-dog shop-keeper Saghir (the always excellent Paul Bhattacharjee).
Soriya is Saghir’s daughter and, in the production’s best scene, she takes Marcus to dinner with him and her brother Ibi (Ray Panthaki); they exchange food and banter across the audience at a divided table. Director Clint Dyer’s staging pays off, too, when Soriya and Georgina go clubbing and girly-talking in the middle of the audience and wend their drunken way home around the periphery.
The show never quite justifies its physical presentation, but De-lahay is very good at writing relationships under strain, and there’s a real sense of how cultural integration is much more complicated than we sometimes think.
And poor old Georgina, who carries an unquenched flame for Ibi, and follows an extreme diet of low fat food and high alcohol intake, ends up with a job as the face of Pizza Hut.
That irony, like some of the other plot points, doesn’t really “land,” and the unravelling of the rape story and Andre’s love life is disappointingly flat.
But there’s a vivid authenticity about the writing that bodes well and is further evidence of the extraordinary amount of talent bubbling under in the Court’s various writing programmes. The show moves into the Theatre Upstairs at the Court later this month.