Cobra

Charis Agbonlahor
Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Cobra

Said to be based on a real life story (and one that will sound all too familiar to many theatre professionals), Cobra is about a struggling black actress whose ambition is to play great classical roles, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, but finds herself caught up in the underworld of Soho strip clubs and the sex trade.

Lacking an agent, with almost all the casting web site job listings seeming to specify Caucasian only and fed up with the rare walk-on or dodgy music video she’s been offered, she’s now a month’s a rent in arrears despite the unspecified part-time job she’s been doing. When that company goes bankrupt, she loses both job and back wages. This makes her desperate enough to call a guy who offered her good money to work in his “Gentleman’s Club”.

Shareen, who adopts the business name of Cobra (from the asp or Egyptian cobra that Cleopatra chose to end her life) is a portrait of a dedicated but rather naïve young woman walking into a trap. Rose Concension gives her the right mixture of failing optimism and panic and easily engages audience sympathy. She is helped by stunning looks. However, if you are going to play the Egyptian Queen (as you might guess she ends up doing) it would help to acknowledge the audience instead of playing it to the ceiling. Cleopatra needs to be as real as Cobra.

Richard de Lisle plays club boss Brendan with a casual likeability that makes his unmasked ruthlessness the more effective and there are some strong performances from Chantelle Scantlebury as his lead dancer Yemi and Samantha Engelbrecht as colleague Lexi. As Shareen’s landlady and best friend Becks, Katherine Blackshaw and Vanessa Russle start off a bit over the top, just first night nerves perhaps for they soon settle into their characters but no one is helped by the production.

Writer Charis Agbonlahor has chosen to direct the play and, in collaboration with her designer, has nearly wrecked it producing the impression of an hour-long television script expended to twice that length with continual resetting of furniture, props and a set of screens between every brief segment of the drama, at worst a 30-second scene followed by a 2-minute scene change.

To make a script like this work in such a venue, you need a smooth flow from scene to scene and much simpler staging. The concept of shadowy dancers moving behind translucent screens to add erotic atmosphere need not have saddled the whole show with shadowy actors moving them and everything else including quite unnecessary scenic embellishments.

There was plenty of time to appreciate how carefully these tedious changes had been mapped out. Or that as much attention had been given to directing the actors.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton