Birmingham Rep and touring
Kwame Kwei-Armah has had a couple of years that some entertainment veterans dream about. Winner of the Evening Standard award for most promising playwright for Elmina's Kitchen, he became more popular than A & E on a Saturday night as Finlay Newton in Casualty. He followed that with the runner-up spot on Celebrity Fame Academy and even proved he had all he answers when he appeared on Question Time.
Now, after the success of Elmina's Kitchen at the National Theatre, Kwei-Armah is starring in his own play which Birmingham Rep is taking on a mini-tour.
He plays the lead role of Deli, an ex-boxer and former criminal trying to turn into an honest success his Caribbean café in Hackney, named Elmina's Kitchen in memory of his grandmother. At the same time he's trying to keep his 19-year-old son Ashley away from the temptations faced by youngsters growing up in a world dominated by drugs, guns and London's Yardie culture.
It's a theme which isn't unique to the stage but Kwei-Armah's treatment is different: there are three generations of Deli's family whose relationships are all stretched to breaking point.
When I saw Elmina's Kitchen at the Rep, I struggled with the various accents in the first half. Some of the funnier moments which black members of the audience found hilarious passed me by.
But the acting is such a high calibre that hardly anyone seems to be acting. That's not surprising when you consider that half of the cast were in the original production and the rest are especially talented. Despite that I found the first half long-winded, slow and too structured.
However, after the interval the pace quickens noticeably. The play resumes with a launch party after Deli has taken the café upmarket. Baygee, delightfully played by Oscar James, strums along on his guitar while drunken Clifton, a stunningly realistic Don Warrington, sings and acts daft.
The play moves into a new dimension when Deli's attempts to keep Ashley in line become increasingly desperate. Ashley is superbly portrayed by Michael Obiora who swaggers around with the confidence of a young man who wants to be a respected adult yet has the vulnerability of an adolescent.
Deli and his father Clifton prove they don't see eye to eye despite their mature years and fall out over Anastasia, played enigmatically by Dona Croll.
As Ashley comes under the control of racketeer Digger, an initially restrained but later fear-inducing Shaun Parkes, the action builds to a violent and unexpected outcome.
Kwei-Armah gives a fine, measured performance, totally at ease as Deli yet never taking the limelight away from the rest of the cast.
Angus Jackson directs sensitively, especially in a taut second half which takes the production to another level.
It's good to hear authentic live music from Rory McFarlane, Juldeh Camara and Atongo Zimba who create a joyful Caribbean atmosphere.
My only reservations were about the pedestrian first half. But I was probably in a minority of one.
"Elmina's Kitchen" plays Liverpool Playhouse from tomorrow (Tuesday 8th March) until Saturday and then moves to Bristol, Salford and Leeds.
Reviewer: Steve Orme