It is amazing what a couple of years and a cast change can do. When Elmina's Kitchen opened at the Cottesloe Theatre in 2003 and then earned its writer an Olivier nomination and Evening Standard award, this reviewer struggled to see what all the fuss was about.
Now, with the same director, Angus Jackson, but in a new home and starring the playwright, it seems special. The critical difference is the performance of TV star Kwame Kwei-Armah who brings the best out of several of his fellow cast members, especially Doña Croll who is even better than at the National.
The action takes place in the restaurant of the title, which is situated in Hackney and managed by Kwei-Armah's Deli. The unpopular diner is overlooked by three images of Muhammad Ali and a gigantic photo of Deli's mother to whom the establishment is dedicated.
Deli is a man who is desperate to do the right thing but it is his tragedy that the harder he tries, the worse the consequences. In part, this is because he lives in the roughest of communities, where right is little more than an option and rarely the most popular.
While he is very much his mother's son, a buttoned-up, non-confrontational perfectionist who firmly believes that he can change the world, neither his father nor his son comes from the same mould.
Don Warrington, who in many minds will forever be remembered as Phillip in Rising Damp, plays the ageing roué, Clifton, a happy-go-lucky, apparently successful man who left London and his family to return to the Caribbean when Deli was 10. Now he comes back for the funeral of his older son Dougie, a minor gangster who died on the day that he was to be released from prison.
In no time, Clifton, together with his jaunty contemporary Oscar James's Baygee, is trying to return to teenage days of partying and passion.
Even more of a problem for Deli is Michael Obiora as his son Ashley, already a father at nineteen, who idolises both his dead uncle and the awful Digger. The latter, played by Shaun Parkes, is part bouncer, part mate but has much bigger fish to fry in his attempts to get rich quick.
Just to spice up the menu, there is love interest provided by Doña Croll's Anastasia, who rolls in as the new cook and also - if she has her way - wife. First though, she persuades Deli to convert Elmina's Kitchen into a West Indian fast food emporium, Elmina's Plantain Hut. The new establishment is very much upmarket with stylish décor and photos of Black icons arrayed on the wall.
Once this heady concoction is shaken up, Deli's world falls apart bit by bit. His woman deserts him for his father, his friend and his son form an unholy alliance and, in the final dramatic scene, his nobility leads to tragedy of almost Greek proportions.
Bunny Christie's design seems to work better within the smaller dimensions of a West End theatre's proscenium arch and the evening is jollied along by music from the African duo of Juldeh Camara and Atongo Zimba.
One problem is the mix of Caribbean patois and North London slang. Londoners will struggle to catch every line and once the tourist season is upon us, there could be some baffled visitors wandering along Charing Cross Road after the show.
The plotting is possibly rather too elaborate and some of the characterisation shallow but there is much comedy, including a great Casualty gag and a real insight into a community rarely portrayed on stage.
At the end too, Kwame Kwei-Armah gives us real pathos, greatly assisted by his own fine performance, well-supported by Shaun Parkes, especially when his character is at his most threatening, and also the witty Doña Croll, Don Warrington and Oscar James.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher