Review: Pigeon English (Ambassadors Theatre)

The National Youth Theatre’s West End season begins with an adaptation of the Booker-shortlisted novel

The National Youth Theatre‘s annual West End season coincides this year with the company’s 60th birthday. There are three shows running in rep across the next few weeks – a Teddy-boy Romeo and Juliet, a staging of Dennis Kelly’s DNA and this adaptation of Stephen Kelman‘s Booker-shortlisted novel Pigeon English.

A gut-punching story about some of the real people behind the words ‘gangs’ and ‘gang culture’, the piece follows ten year-old boy Harri from Ghana, who is living with his family on an estate in London. It is a hard-hitting, but often funny portrait, one which tries to unpack some of the stories and reasons – some of the truths – behind why young people get caught up in knife crime.

Harri’s narrative dips in and out of the lives of others on his block: Never Normal Girl is the weird quiet one who, rumour has it, is being abused by her grandfather; Jordan lives next door but never goes to school and everyone is being intimidated by the gang of three older boys. Dean is Harri’s best friend and together they embark on a quest to find out who stabbed a boy outside their local chicken shop. All around these young people is mindless violence, fear, hatred and neglect. The one male father figure in Harri’s life gives him advice that is telling: "The only friends a man needs are a bat and a drink."

Gbolahan Obisesan‘s adaptation struggles somewhat with the many narrative strands of the original. It’s long, and it doesn’t focus. What we do get is a sense of the young boy Harri (played beautifully here by Seraphina Beh); his vulnerabilities and the way he finds the world around him so incomprehensible. "Why can’t babies be born only in the daytime?" Harri says, exasperated, when his midwife mother is called to work a night shift.

Anna Niland’s muddled direction doesn’t help matters much and the odd decision to flag up each scene with one of the characters announcing the setting is distracting. But the performances are strong, with Beh giving a convincing portrayal infused with youthful energy and naive confusion. Arianna Beadie is also good as the grotesque Maquita, who is violent and troubled and, in a horribly unsettling scene, sexually abuses Harri. The rest of the ensemble are tight, too.

The NYT rep season isn’t, really, about the writing. It’s about showcasing the talent of the future. And watching these young actors, I’d say the future looks bright.

Pigeon English runs at the Ambassadors Theatre until 22 November, in rep with DNA (9 to 25 November) and Romeo and Juliet 1 to 23 November.