Desert Boy

Mojisola Adebayo
Nitro and the Albany
The Albany, Deptford
(2010)

Production photo

After Moj of the Antarctic and Muhammed Ali and Me, Mojisola Adebayo has yet another hit on her hands in her latest play Desert Boy. Adebayo is a master storyteller and combined with Felix Cross' direction this production is exactly what theatre should be.

Soldier Boy is near to death when suddenly a mysterious stranger appears out of nowhere. The streetwise teen is taken aback, unsure of what to make of this encounter and soon he is transported back in time to the Sahara. At first glance it seems that Soldier Boy and Desert Man are worlds apart, but on closer inspection the two have much more in common than they think.

In just over ninety minutes the audience is transported from Deptford to Timbuktu, from present to past, and witness episodes from the plantation fields, a London shopping mall, aboard a prison ship, a local Deptford pub and even the Greenwich observatory. The journey is not merely geographical, but one of history, struggle, conflict and identity. Certain objects and motifs make an appearance in both men's stories - a gold pen, a single mother - and, as the narrative flits between past and present, the audience cannot fail to detect Adebayo's message.

Adebayo's text is witty and moving. Although subject matter such as slavery and knife crime could be morose, Adebayo avoids this and writes in a way that young people in particular will identify with but without feeling lectured. A buzz of energy runs throughout the production which keeps the performance alive and vibrant as the audience constantly await the next episode of the tale.

Desert Boy's lyrical narration provides the piece with great rhythm, which is beautifully complimented by the play's soundscape of songs. Sound, tone and rhythm play a vital role in the play's aesthetic and the piece is as beautiful to listen to as it is to watch. A cappella voices, performance poetry, African rhythms and contemporary rapping all feature and are expertly sung by the talented cast. The thematic melodies help evoke emotion and setting and demonstrate just how wonderful the voice as a musical instrument really is.

The team of five actors prove this is a real ensemble piece. Maureen Hibbert, Jay Marsh and Elexi Walker are superb in their myriad of characters; each one is perfectly formed and acted with intensity and passion. A simple change of accent and costume helps to differentiate the multiple roles they play.

Emmanuel Idowu as Soldier Boy inhabits the role convincingly, oozing 'street'. His constant cinematic cultural allusions provide much humour as he likens Desert Man, played by Femi Ogunbanjo, to Dr.Who, E.T and Mr.Spock. There is also a wonderfully comic scene where Soldier Boy teaches Desert Man the art of wooing and ends up serenading his own knee. When Desert Man puts his newly learned tricks into practice, the outcome is hilarious and provides some lighter moments to Desert Man's tale of slavery and struggle.

A cleverly designed set and lighting plot help evoke the many settings in the piece and contribute towards a glorious evening of storytelling. With such a talented cast and production team, Desert Boy's tale of how victims of crime can be criminalised themselves deserves great success as it embarks on a national tour after its premiere in Deptford.

Playing until 15th May 2010, then tours to Manchester (26th - 27th May), Bath (28th - 29th May), Bracknell (1st - 2nd June), Watford (3rd - 5th June) and Birmingham (10th - 12th June).

Reviewer: Simon Sladen